August 16-22, 2006

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'House of Sand'

Vantoen Pereira Jr./Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
Location, Location, Location: Áurea (Fernanda Torres) surveys the backyard (or is the front?) of her new digs in Brazil's Maranhão dunes in 'House of Sand.'

Up the Sandbox

Seemingly sent by Mr. Sandman himself, 'House of Sand' is a Brazilian cure for insomnia

By Richard von Busack

WE DON'T see enough Brazilian films to judge whether House of Sand is the dullest Brazilian film in a decade. Let's just call it the dullest film of the year. The natural surroundings aren't elementally boring; director Andrucha Waddington films in the Maranhão in northern Brazil, a wilderness of dunes close to a stormy and uninviting Atlantic coast. And there's a grain of plausibility to the story, too. Waddington based the film on a photo of a derelict house submerged in sand—the relic of someone foolish enough to try to make a living in that desolation. What makes House of Sand so infuriatingly tedious, more than the mere visual monotony of all that sand drifting in the wind from one end of the screen to the other, is the scope of the tale. Waddington has it that three generations live in the sand pile, wanting out, but they never manage to figure out which way civilization is. How do they survive? Dried fish, Waddington supposes. A wheezing old peddler, Chico (Emiliano Queiroz), brings in salt and takes out salted fish, but he's too aged and crazed to direct a helpless woman back to civilization.

The ordeal begins in 1910, when Vasco (Ruy Guerra), a deluded aristocratic colonizer, arrives with his wife, Áurea (Fernanda Torres), and Áurea 's mother, Dona Maria (Fernanda Montenegro). In the rainy season, he believes, the land will be prosperous. Soon, machete-wielding slaves steal his livestock. When Vasco dies, Áurea hopes to escape, "but the truth is, her fate is in the hands of destiny," say the press notes, as if destiny ever had anything to do with this kind of drama. Áurea is helped by a local fisherman, Massu (Seu Jorge), the son of an escaped slave. He and his friends help keep Áurea and her mother and daughter alive. Massu acts as Man Friday, neither warming to Áurea nor letting her starve. Later, in 1919, Áurea has a one-night encounter with an army officer, Luiz, who is escorting a scientific party to observe the proof of relativity during a solar eclipse. (Here the real-life expedition to the African island of Principe in 1919 is fictionally relocated to Brazil.) The story picks up in 1942. Torres, the actress who played Áurea, is now playing Áurea and Luiz's daughter, Maria (named in honor of her grandmother), as a grown woman. And the actress who played Áurea 's mother, Fernanda Montenegro, now plays Áurea. (First it's Einstein's law of relativity, now it's Nietzsche's law of eternal return.) Unfortunately, the young Maria has grown up dissolute. She would be the town whore, if there actually was a town. And then Luiz returns, now a medal-bedecked officer—and it continues.

One reason House of Sand blew into town is the presence of Fernanda Montenegro, the principal tragedienne in the Brazilian national cinema—and the most careworn, suffering mom since Jane Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath. The only other reason it arrived was a solitary but relatively hot sex scene. Hence the R rating by our ever-alert MPAA, which must have woken up from its drowse before the blowing sand lulled it back again.

Movie Times House of Sand (R; 104 min.), directed by Andrucha Waddington, written by Waddington, Luiz Carlos Barreto and Elena Soarez, photographed by Ricardo Della Rosa and starring Fernanda Torres and Luiz Melodia, opens Aug. 18.

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