A hypnotic tale of two women in the dunes, Andrucha Waddington’s fog-less House of Sand charts the 59-year ordeal of Maria (Fernanda Montenegro) and daughter Áurea (Fernanda Torres) in Brazil’s Maranhão desert. Initially brought to their desolate home in 1910 by Áurea’s husband Vasco (Ruy Guerra), the pair is soon abandoned after their caravan flees the harsh region and the increasingly insane Vasco accidentally gets himself killed. Aided by a runaway slave named Massu (Sue Jorge), the two struggle to survive their difficult, solitary existence, with Maria wearily resigned to their forsaken fate, and a pregnant Áurea frantic to find a means of escaping their inhospitable environs. Attuned to both the flowing passage of time and the charged silence between people, Waddington conveys his narrative’s period-shifts through images of streaming sand or airplanes passing over the vast, arid wasteland (as well as tidbits of current events that find their way to the women’s ears), and expresses the constantly changing dynamics of his mother-daughter duo through majestic formal compositions and staging. In a gimmicky but gracefully executed contrivance, House of Sand has its emotive leads (who are also mother and daughter in real-life) exchange roles as the decades fly by, so that Montenegro eventually embodies the roles of Maria, Áurea, and Áurea’s daughter Maria, a device that epitomizes the director’s thematic preoccupation with doubling and circularity. Envisioned as a beautifully severe alien landscape—a notion reinforced by Áurea’s interaction with a group of star-gazing scientists trying to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity by studying a solar eclipse—the rolling, lake-dotted Maranhão is Waddington’s real muse, and he lavishes it with a mixture of love, admiration, and fear while vividly juxtaposing its elemental power against the fragility of Maria and Áurea. It’s this meeting between seemingly disparate forces that ultimately stands at the heart of the entrancing, visually breathtaking House of Sand, an encounter initially cast as one fraught with insurmountable tensions but which, with the sensual sight of Áurea’s stark-white body intertwined with that of the jet-black Massu, also comes to hold the promise of unlikely unity.
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