That would be a worthless load of high-falutin praise if the film lacked humility, but Waddington uses hefty doses of restraint, even as his characters age over the better part of a century, while both World Wars, the theory of relativity and the lunar landing play prominent thematic roles. By opening boldly with a long take of a caravan inching across the hopelessly barren sand dunes of northern Brazil, Waddington turns the pale landscape into an ambiguity— save for the camels, the sparse mise-en-scene could be mistaken for the frozen seas of Antarctica. But the possibilities are narrowed down with a following cut to an immediate close-up of sweaty, exhausted faces to actualize a sense of unbearable heat.
This is the agreeable rhythm that Waddington (with assistance, presumably, from editor Sergio Mekler) uses throughout: Simple storybook imagery, gorgeously shot by cinematographer Ricardo Della Rosa, is punctuated by sudden bursts of realism. The equation forms an aesthetic of subdued chaos.
The accomplished performers in House of Sand are Fernanda Torres and Fernanda Montenegro, who credibly embody different characters in varying decades with wholly distinct impressions. At the outset Torres plays Aurea (an altered form of the Portuguese word for — what else?— sand), a reserved young woman traipsing across the desert in 1910 with her fantastically-driven husband (Ruy Guerra), an older man intent on the narcissistic goal of settling with his family amid the decrepit backdrop.
To complicate things, Aurea is pregnant, her elderly mother (Montenegro) is feeble, and a few neighboring runaway slaves aren’t pleased about the unexpected company. The drama of this grim first act comes to a head at a rapid pace, as the family unit is abandoned by their accompanying caravan and Aurea’s husband takes his frustration out on their makeshift hut, at which point his ambition literally collapse onto him, with lethal results.
Aurea and her mother wander their empty world in search of an outlet for their anguish, with the possibility of starvation and dehydration serving as an ever-present threat. Their stumbling sojourn across frame after sterile frame recalls Gerry, Gus Van Sant’s quiet meditation on death in nature, but while Van Sant stretched out his parable to a full running time, House of Sand restricts these despondent visceral moments to its early chapters. Once Aurea and her mother discover an escaped slave outpost anchored by the presence of trenchant survivalist Massu (Seu Jorge, far from the over-the-top showman of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), the action is mostly restricted to a single minimalist set as the mother-daugher duo settle down and hope for rescue. Then time begins to unravel with cosmic decay.
Several complications follow, marked by a romantic sense of transience, which leads to deceitful behavior followed with the retention of balance. Aurea raises her daughter with Massu falling into the paternal position, almost dangerously so. Aurea attempts to establish an exit strategy with a traveling group of scientists, sleeping with their accompanying soldier (Enrique Diaz), then Massu makes a critical decision to hide their presence from her when they pass by. His behavior at first seems reprehensible, but after their sexual tension reaches its inevitable consummation, he is redeemed with leading man pathos, protecting himself from a life condemned to loneliness. With Aurea and Massu together, the couple dynamic is reestablished, and time is again allowed to pass.
In the latter half of the film, the older Aurea is portrayed by Montegro, while Torres plays her hedonistic teenage daughter. A technique that has been employed to varying effects by Francois Truffaut and David Lynch, this flip-flop offers more than just a compelling acting challenge. It creates a mirror effect, actualizing the continuity of human reproduction, highlighting the distinction between physical traits and personality. Aurea projects her need to escape the desert onto her offspring, but is clueless as to what such environmental uprooting could gain.
During brief contact with the outside world, Aurea receives faint updates about changing politics and scientific achievement, but with no visual reference points, she can only think with abstractions. Brilliantly restricted to a concise setting of poetic proportions, House of Sand reflects her lifelong simplicity. And there is simply nothing else in current theatrical release that achieves this degree of focused eloquence.
*A version of this review was published this week in the New York Press