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House of Sand, The

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 05/12/06 08:45:43

"Crumbles under the weight of its own pretensions."
3 stars (Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2006 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Multi-generational dramas are rarely, if ever, successful on film. They're better suited to the novel or the television mini-series format. Despite its art-house pretensions, "Casa de Areia" ( "The House of Sand"), a Brazilian import that follows three generations of women struggling to survive in the unforgiving desert environment of Northeast Brazil during the early to mid part of the 20th-century, is, sadly no different, losing the dramatic momentum created by the central conflict as soon as it jumps ahead in time and switches lead characters from a mother to a daughter. On the plus side, "Casa de Areia" has strong visuals and highly watchable performances by Fernanda Montenegro and Fernanda Torres (mother and daughter in the real world).

Casa de Areia opens in 1910, as a caravan of men, women, and animals struggle across sand dunes toward their new home. The leader of the expedition, Vasco de Sß (Ruy Guerra), has purchased property literally in the middle of nowhere. Vasco hopes to build a new life with his young wife, ┴urea (Fernanda Torres). ┴urea, however, has married Vasco more or less under duress, as a means to ward off debt collectors and care 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 next-to-no 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. ┴urea, 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 the fiery, temperamental ┴urea.

┴urea 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, time passes and her daughter grows up, Maria (Camilla Facundes). ┴urea's chances improve with the arrival of a team of scientists eager to record an upcoming lunar eclipse. ┴urea quickly befriends an officer, Luiz (Enrique DÝaz), who offers her and her daughter the opportunity to escape. Natural events, however, frustrate ┴urea'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 ┴urea and her mother (who doesn't want to leave) dissipates the moment ┴urea makes her decision (or the decision is made for her) whether to stay or leave the sand dunes, necessitating another flash-forward. ┴urea is now a middle-aged woman (played by Fernanda Montenegro) and the conflict has transferred to her rebellious daughter, Maria (played by Fernanda Torres). The either/or struggle, life in the dunes or life elsewhere, plays out a second time.

With the switch in central characters from the strong-willed ┴urea to her angry, rebellious daughter, Maria, Casa de Areia loses all momentum as scenes devolve into repetition and 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 (unnecessarily distracting stunt casting).

On a surface level, itĺs hard to argue with director Andrucha Waddingtonĺs eye for visual composition. Filming on location allowed Waddington to capture the stark, unforgiving beauty of the sand dunes, the lagoons, and the nearby ocean. The opening scene of Vasco leading the caravan across a desolate landscape plays out in real time and sets the languid, deliberate tone 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 ôreadö the characters through their facial expressions and body language. Visuals alone, however, arenĺt enough to elevate "Casa de Areia" above the sporadically engaging or the fascinatingly flawed misfire.

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