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The House of Sand

Sinks Under the Weight of its Arty Pretensions

Multi-generational dramas are generally better suited to the novel format or the television mini-series. Case in point, Casa de Areia ("The House of Sand"), a Brazilian import that follows three generations struggling to survive in the unforgiving desert of Northeast Brazil during the early to mid part of the 20th-century, is sadly no different. On the plus side, the film has strong visuals and (mostly) watchable performances by Fernanda Montenegro and Fernanda Torres (who are in actuality mother and daughter).

Casa de Areia opens in 1910, as a caravan of men, women, and animals struggle toward their new home in the desert. The leader of the expedition, Vasco de Sá (Ruy Guerra), has purchased a plot of land literally in the middle of nowhere. The elderly Vasco hopes to build a new life with his young, fiery, and temperamental wife, Áurea (Fernanda Torres). Áurea, however, has married Vasco in order to escape debt collectors and find a place for her mother Maria (Fernanda Montenegro). Neither woman is happy, let alone content, with the move to the desert.

Life among the sand dunes is an understandably harsh one, with few amenities. Vasco's men soon abandon them and a nearby village of fugitive slaves poses an existential threat to Vasco and the women. Vasco, however, proves inadaptable to the extreme conditions of the dunes, losing his life in a fit of anger. Áurea, now pregnant, and her mother are forced to fend for themselves, eventually turning to the nearby village of ex-slaves for support. One ex-slave, Massu (Luiz Melodia), develops unrequited feelings for Áurea.

Áurea refuses to accept life in the dunes, scraping and saving whatever meager resources are available in order to leave the dunes for a larger town or city. Meanwhile, the years pass quickly and her daughter, Maria (Camilla Facundes), grows up. Áurea's chances of escaping the desert improve with the arrival of scientists interested in recording an upcoming lunar eclipse. Áurea befriends an officer, Luiz (Enrique Díaz), who offers her and her daughter the opportunity to escape. Natural events, however, frustrate Áurea's plans, leading her to a critical decision, accepting her life in the sand dunes or continue the struggle to escape.

What gradually develops into a dilemma for Áurea and her mother (who doesn't want to leave) dissipates the moment Áurea makes her decision (or the decision is made for her) to stay or leave the sand dunes, which in turn leads to another jump forward in time. Áurea is now a middle-aged woman (now played by Fernanda Montenegro) and the conflict has transferred to her rebellious daughter, Maria (now played by Fernanda Torres). The struggle, of life in the dunes or life elsewhere, plays out a second time.

With the switch in central characters from the strong-willed Áurea to her angry, rebellious daughter, Maria, Casa de Areia slowly and inexorably loses momentum. The remaining scenes devolve into repetitious melodrama. Even then, Casa de Areia doesn't end with the resolution of Maria's character arc, but jumps forward one last time, with the adult Maria reunited with her elderly mother, with Fernanda Montenegro playing both characters (distracting, therefore unnecessary, stunt casting).

On a visual level, it’s hard to argue with director Andrucha Waddington’s eye for composition. Filming on location allowed Waddington to capture the stark beauty of the sand dunes, the lagoons, and the nearby ocean. The opening scene of Vasco leading the caravan across a desolate landscape serves to put moviegoers on notice of Waddington’s command of the language of film, while also setting the languid, deliberate pacing for the remainder of the film. Waddington keeps dialogue to a minimum, partly to stay true to his characters natural reticence and partly to compel moviegoers to “read” the characters through their facial expressions and body language. If only the story had been as compelling as Waddington’s visuals, Casa de Areia would have received a stronger recommendation.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars