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HOUSE OF SAND, THE (Casa de Areia)(director/writer: Andrucha Waddington; screenwriters: Elena Soárez/based on a story by Luiz Carlos Barreto and Ms. Soárez; cinematographer: Ricardo Della Rosa; editor: Sérgio Mekler; music: Carlo Bartolini/João Barone; cast: Fernanda Montenegro (Dona Maria/Áurea/Maria), Fernanda Torres (Áurea/Maria), Ruy Guerra (Vasco de Sá), Seu Jorge (Massu), Enrique Diaz (Soldier Luis, 1919), Stênio Garcia (Luis, in 1942), Emiliano Queiroz(Chico), Camilla Facundes (Maria, at ten in 1919); Runtime: 115; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Leonardo Monteiro de Barros/Pedro Buarque de Hollanda/Pedro Guimarães/Mr. Waddington; Sony Pictures Classics; 2005-Brazil-in Portuguese with English subtitles)
“It all seems as bleak and empty as the desert.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Brazilian Audrucha Waddington (“Me You Them”) directs this pretentious arthouse film intended only as a “purely visual experience” and uses as its model the great Japanese classic Woman in the Dunes, which it can’t hold a bucket of sand to. The screenwriter is Elena Soarez, who co-writes it with the director; it’s based on the story Ms. Soarez co-wrote with Luiz Carlos Barreto. It takes place in northern Brazil’s harsh dreamscape Maranhão desert of glistening white sand (filmed near the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park).

It’s 1910 and Áurea (Fernanda Torres, wife of the director) is pregnant; her hubby Vasco de Sá (Ruy Guerra, Cinema Novo filmmaker), a fanatical settler, is certain there will be water in the desert property he purchased, and sets up camp to start a farm with his wife and her elderly mother Dona Maria (Fernanda Montenegro, real mother of Fernanda Torres) and other city settlers he led out to the wilderness by caravan. Áurea immediately pines to return to the city, where she led a comfortable middle-class life, but hubby refuses to listen. The settlers are soon approached by hostile runaway black slaves with machetes who live in the next village and put such a scare in the settlers that they all depart in the caravan except for crazy Vasco and family. While fixing up a primitive shack to live in by the sand, it collapses and Vasco is accidentally killed. Dona Maria after being unable to flee the brutally rugged area with her daughter because she can’t climb over the dunes, accepts her bitter fate (“No man tells me what to do here”) and remains in the desert island as an adjusted camper. Her daughter still yearns for city life and its culture (especially missing music) but when salt deliverer Chico (Emiliano Queiroz), from the neighboring area, her ticket out of here suddenly dies from a cough, she’s stuck and the years quickly go by and her baby girl Maria (Camilla Facundes) is now ten. The women are helped to survive by one of the slaves, Massu (Seu Jorge), a laconic fisherman, who shows them how to get food and builds a shack for them. World War One has come and gone, and the isolated family has no idea it ever even happened. In a two-day walk from their shack Áurea meets a young soldier named Luis (Enrique Díaz) who is escorting a group of international scientists to the desert to take photographs of the total solar eclipse of 1919. Áurea spends the night making love to Luis and is told that the scientists say it’s OK to join them in escaping the place. When she returns to get her mother and daughter, she finds the shack collapsed in the shifting sand and her mother dead. Maria was rescued by the widower Massu. The scientists leave without Áurea, and she soon abandons any hope of ever leaving and lives together with Massu as man and wife. In 1942 Luis (Stênio Garcia) returns with a rescue party for the bodies of the soldiers in a plane crash. He’s now a married man, whom Áurea (now played by Fernanda Montenegro) talks into taking her passionate daughter Maria (now played by Fernanda Torres) back to civilization because she can’t stand living in the barren wilderness. The film closes some sixty years later in 1970, with Áurea’s daughter returning by van to find her elderly mom still alive in the shack and telling her a man has walked on the moon. The joke is that the moon is filled with nothing but sand and looks just like this place.

“Sand” succeeds in its visual aims of being a beautiful film to feast your eyes on, especially if you’re into hollow shots of sand, clear skies and the deep blue sea. The wide-cinematography by Ricardo Della Rosa is up to National Geographic speed. The problem with this survival cum romantic tale, told in a fable-like way and covering the themes of isolation, confinement and loneliness, is that the story line is thin, too many character switches hinder rather than help the clarity of the story, and it all seems as bleak and empty as the desert.

REVIEWED ON 12/22/2006 GRADE: C+

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”