The House of Sand

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 December, 2006, 12:00am

The House of Sand

Starring: Fernanda Montenegro, Fernanda Torres, Seu Jorge

Director: Andrucha Waddington

The film: Almost four years in the making, The House of Sand could have been the 21st-century take on Werner Herzog's rainforest-transgressing Fitzcarraldo - but less brutal and more poetic and visually ravishing. Andrucha Waddington's magnum opus about a woman's 60-year-battle to carve an existence amidst the vast dunes in remote northern Brazil is more a celebration of a determined matriarch than the follies of an adventurer.

The story unfolds in 1910, as young urbanite Aurea (Fernanda Torres, below) - her mother Maria (Fernanda Montenegro, Torres' real-life mother) in tow - braves the sun, sand and scorching heat to follow her tyrannical husband Vasco (Ruy Guerra) on a misguided mission to set up a farm in the almost lunar geographical void in northern Maranhao.

The abrupt departure of their party of frustrated labourers - cowed by the uninhabitable terrain and machete-wielding, newly freed slaves settling near by - and Vasco's premature demise set in motion Aurea's fight against Lencoi Maranhenses' shifting sands.

While the landscape is key in setting the tone for the film, The House of Sand is made wonderful by the performances of Montenegro and Torres. Theirs is a convincing mix of disgruntlement, edginess and jaded resignation to a fate of isolation in a wilderness that's just endless swathes of sand.

It is even more remarkable, given how both actors play more than one role: Montenegro plays the mother-in-law in 1910, Aurea in 1942, and then both Aurea and her daughter Maria in 1969, while Torres is 1910's Aurea and 1942's Maria. They reflect well the shifts in their personalities, when initial plans to escape slowly give way to a steely commitment to the land (and the ex-slave native community, with Aurea's links with Seu Jorge's Massu), even when access to the outside world becomes possible.

Credits also go to Waddington and screenwriter Elena Soarez for refusing to up the melodramatic ante by moving the narrative at least in parts away from the desert: intrusions into the protagonists' isolated existences - which doubles as markers of how the world beyond the dunes have progressed, through two world wars and even Nasa's lunar ventures - are consequential yet remarkably brief.

The deft touch in maintaining Aurea's secluded universe sees The House of Sand taking up the aura of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novels of magical realism.

The extras: The film's grand achievements call for an in-depth exploration of its genesis, and the 55-minute documentary that comes as the DVD's special feature provide all the answers that one needs to understand the whole project, from the difficulties of production - the location is still a day's ride from the nearest city - to the almost non-negotiable terrain on show. One thing is left unsaid, however, that may add another layer towards understanding The House of Sand: Waddington is Torres' husband (and thus Montenegro's son-in-law), and shaped the film's characters much like the way Vasco nearly decided the fate of his wife and mother-in-law at the beginning of the film.

The verdict: A visual feast and a showcase of delicate storytelling, The House of Sand is cinema at its most epic and engaging.