There's a fine line between artistic ambition and pretension. In his new film The House of Sand, director Andrucha Waddington toes that line for the first hour; but with a sudden jump in time and a gimmicky bit of stunt-casting, the director abandons true emotions in favor of posturing.
Set in 1910 in Brazil's Maranhão desert, Waddington's multigenerational tale of mothers and daughters is both spare and epic in scope. In the first 10 minutes, the director establishes a desolate tone: Crazed Vasco (Ruy Guerra) has decided to move his pregnant young bride, Áurea (Fernanda Torres), and her mother, Dona Maria (Fernanda Montenegro), to the middle of nowhere, and they wordlessly trudge across the vast white sand in search of lagoons they will call home. When Vasco is accidentally killed, Áurea and her aged mother are left to fend for themselves. They befriend a local, Massu (Portuguese pop star Seu Jorge), who teaches them how to cope in the dunes. Áurea then spends the next six decades struggling to survive in this beautiful but unforgiving wasteland.
At first, Waddington captures the charged silences that exist between people on the brink of despair. Áurea, her mother and, eventually, Áurea's daughter, try to carve out a life in a place that constantly threatens to swallow up every trace of their existence. Waddington slows the pace to a crawl and relies on image, not dialogue, to express his story. The isolation and constantly shifting sands reflect the characters' inner struggles.
Cinematographer Richard Della Rosa lets his camera linger over the barren landscape, and the effect is stunning, recalling the work of Carroll Ballard (Duma, Never Cry Wolf, The Black Stallion) or even Nicholas Roeg's Walkabout.
Eventually, however, incredible visuals are not enough to compensate for Sand's lack of narrative drive. The story jumps through time so that Waddington can wax poetic on the cyclical nature of aging, history and relativity. Eventually, the daughter becomes the mother and their emotional struggles evaporate in the hot winds of pretension.
Waddington's greatest contrivance is having his actresses swap roles with each generational shift Montenegro becomes the elder matron Áurea, and Torres becomes her own daughter stressing the notion that children supplant their parents as time goes by. Graceful as his execution may be, the trick robs Áurea and her mother of emotional closure and underlines the thematic indulgences. After an engrossing beginning, the director uses weighty ruminations in place of a satisfying conclusion to the women's story.
While Montenegro and Torres are both superb in their flip-flopping roles, the fact that they are real-life mother and daughter and Torres is married to Waddington further suggests the endeavor is one big vanity project. Nevertheless, the supporting cast is equally good, and Seu Jorge proves he's more than just a pop sensation.
There's an undeniable appeal to the film's haunting imagery, feminist tones and dreamlike meditations on fate and family. But for many viewers, the overwhelming inertia will make The House of Sand seem like two hours of art for art house's sake.
In Portuguese with English subtitles. Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.