The physical, emotional and cosmic unite in Andrucha Waddington's powerful "The House of Sand." Marking a quantum leap for the talented helmer and busy producer ("Me, You. Them"), pic magnificently renders a fresh view of life on planet Earth. A saga set in remote sand dunes over a 59-year stretch with a handful of characters may sound like a severe test for auds, but the film's masterful pace, structure and dramatic payoff has already earned handsome B.O. dividends in Brazil since its May opening, and will score intense distrib and fest interest around the world.
Because it involves three generations of mothers and daughters surviving in the remote landscape of Maranhao in northern Brazil from 1910 to 1969, unsuspecting viewers may assume Elena Soarez's screenplay (which nabbed the Sundance/NHK prize in 2002 for yet-to-be shot script) is based on historical events. In fact, inspiration derives solely from a photo of a small hut built in the sand dunes of Maranhao, out of which Soarez (along with Waddington and producer Luiz Carlos Barreto) constructed an unlikely and surprisingly complex adventure.
Waddington and cinematographer Ricardo Della Rosa expressively lens and frame a caravan of evidently urban emigres trudging through a sandstorm toward their supposed new home. Opening moving shots over the otherworldly Maranhao landscape establish an awe-inspiring mood, projecting a sense of civilized people lost in an alien place. Vasco de Sa (played memorably if briefly by director Ruy Guerra) has dragged his young pregnant wife Aurea (Fernanda Torres), her mother Dona Maria (Fernanda Montenegro) and others into this hellhole to establish a new home on land he has bought. Immediately confronted by local blacks, including Massu (Luiz Melodia), who appear on a dune horizon, Vasco must trade some valuables to stake his ground. But Vasco soon dies in an accident, leaving mother and daughter to fend for themselves.
The juxtaposition of properly raised women in black Victorian garb hiking through hostile landscapes toward the surprise sight of ocean and coastline only begins the next bend of the tale, where the pair create, with Massu's help, a new, fragile home on a coastal outcropping.
At every stage of the story, Waddington pays close attention to such micro details as the small flows of sand constantly invading the house and macro observations of the greater landscape, balanced with the sometimes wordless emotional links and conflicts. Aurea regularly tries to find her way back to civilization; Dona Maria learns to accept her fate, and make the most of what she has.
But, in roles specifically fashioned for them, both real-life mother and daughter actors show such steeliness and fortitude that there's never any doubt each character will survive.
By 1919, the poor homestead is firmly settled, but problems crop up with salt seller Chico (Emiliano Queiroz). Aurea still wants to get away with young daughter Maria (Camilla Facundes) and give the land to Massu.
En route to her hoped-for escape, Aurea experiences a lunar eclipse, then encounters an encampment of astronomers hears news of the wider world and falls in love with camp guard Luiz (Enrique Diaz). But when Aurea returns home for the final farewell, she finds the house nearly destroyed and her mother dead.
As an adult, in 1942, Maria (now Torres) is a good-for-nothing floozy who indulges in rampant sex and booze. Aurea (now Montenegro) is beside herself with anger at her daughter, but can do nothing to control her. The sudden appearance of a dead WWII pilot triggers the return of Luiz, now a Brazilian air force officer who does a double-take at the sight of Maria, recalling his old love. She plays on his vulnerability and makes love to him, while Massu (now Luiz Melodia) is briefly overcome with jealousy at seeing the officer.
Luiz, though, is Maria's way out, and final irony is that the mother who always wanted to leave the dunes sees her daughter flee. In 1969, Maria (now Montenegro) returns to see her mom still getting by, informing her that a man landed on the moon and playing her some Chopin piano on a tape cassette. Such simple details are the stuff of an astounding emotional denouement that wraps up and connects all of the film's key themes from the personal to the cosmic.
Cast is in tour-de-force mode, with Montenegro and Torres a combustible combination, easily shifting through the generations. Effective underplaying is the guiding principle to all perfs.
Fearsome physical onditions are made palpable with d.p. Della Rosa's ability to so well capture the film's many atmospheric moods. Kudos as well should go to production designer Tule Peake's realistic palm-covered house, costume designer Claudia Kopke's marvelous sense of period specificity, and a sound package that becomes an essential part of making "The House of Sand" a work of total cinema.
Camera (Megacolor, widescreen), Ricardo Della Rosa; editor, Sergio Mekler; music, Carlo Bartolini, Joao Barone; production designer, Tule Peake; costume designer, Claudia Kopke; makeup, Martin Macias Trujillo; sound (Dolby Digital), Jorge Saldanha; re-recording mixer, Mark Berger; supervising sound editor, Miriam Bilderman; visual effects supervisor, Fabio Soares; line producer, Tim Maia; co-line producer, Claudia Braga. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 9, 2005. Running time: 115 MIN.