For the first 10 minutes of Andrucha Waddington’s stunning House of Sand, no one speaks a word. Instead, they walk. Or rather, they trudge, over endless sand. It’s 1910, and a caravan makes its way through the Maranhão region of northern Brazil, seeking refuge and, in the most abstract, precious, and utterly concrete senses, freedom. At last they find a spot, and Vasco de Sá (Ruy Guerra) makes camp. This is the spot where they will live and prosper.
He makes a deal with a group of descendants of runaway slaves who have also laid claim to the land—as if anyone might actually “own” or preside over such wildness—haggling over a deed. Vasco’s small crew endeavors to build a shelter with lumber and palm leaves. He’s brought with him his new wife Áurea (Fernanda Torres, married to Waddington in real life), who looks on her new residence with a mix of horror and resignation. Pregnant and isolated, she observes her husband slowly go mad, and eventually, die in a freak accident, drunk and pathetic. (In fact, his house falls on him, a death more fitting than he can know.)
Alone with a crew she cannot hope to pay, Áurea and her mother Doña Maria (Fernanda Montenegro, Torres’ real-life mother) bury the unloved husband, the camera observing from a distance, their figures small against a white expanse stretching beyond. She begins to think of ways to leave the desert. She meets with the leader of the former slaves, Massu (Sue Jorge), who teaches her to trade what she has for food and other necessities. What she has are furniture and china, items lugged into the desert so as to emulate “civilization” in the middle of nowhere. And so she lets it go, bit by bit: fabric, chairs, tablecloths, a photo, seeming fragments in time stopped, briefly.
For Áurea, however, time becomes endless and even surreal. As she waits to leave, imagining the time will come, her life remains perpetually paused, as she waits to leave this place and never does. The one man who comes and goes, the salt trader Chico (Emiliano Queiroz), brings sparse news of events in the distant world and goods. At first, he represents hope of escape, but slowly, he comes to embody their choice to stay.
More specifically, Maria chooses to stay, while Áurea keeps dreaming of departure. “Have you forgotten how things are out there?” she asks her mother. “I’ve stopped missing it,” she says. “Here, no man tells me what to do.” Indeed, they have found a bizarre sort of freedom in their existence, at once abject and glorious, desolate and fulfilled. And so they wait. Following the birth of Áurea’s daughter, also named Maria, they stay, now thinking that when the girl is “old enough,” they will move on. And yet, nine years later (young Maria now played by Camilla Facundes), they remain (Áurea stays and stays, some 59 years). They come to live as one with their unusual home, built on land that moves, literally, with time and wind and weather, is ever shifting, braced against transient elements yet also of them, never fixed.
Young Maria knows no other world, old Maria has found her peace with the sand, and yet Áurea yearns to go back. During one of her long walks to nowhere, Áurea comes on Lieutenant Luiz (Enrique Diaz), a guide leading a group of scientists researching of a regional total solar eclipse. It’s 1919, and he tells her the war is over, and she can only look at him blankly: “What war?” He describes the scientists’ project in terms of their hope to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity, a problem he describes in these terms: if a twin traveled to outer space and came back years later, he would be younger than the brother left on earth.
While Áurea is thrilled by Luiz’s mere presence (“Can you get me out of here?” she asks, following his marvelous story of the twins), she doesn’t exactly hear in his story the resonance you do: her own story is about such traveling in and through time, her mother and child—and the combinations of actors who play them—another form of twinning. For when, eventually, the film marks its year as 1942, Áurea has aged (now played by Montenegro), as has her daughter Maria (now Torres): they have become one another, in figure, at least, if not in spirit or aspiration.
And yet they have not. They remain separate women, each carving herself out of the sand. At times the barren, brilliant landscape seems designed to illustrate their internal states. House of Sand is comprised of stunning imagery; Ricardo Della Rosa’s camera lingers for long periods on long shots, the land shifting and reshaping in front of you. So too do the characters’ relationships, as Áurea falls in love with Massu (played by Luiz Melodia during his older years) and they form a family with Maria and his son, its unusual parameters suited to their strange and wondrous surroundings. He asks her what she misses most of the outside, of her past, and she says, simply, “Music.” When he wonders, “What is real music like?” she sighs, faintly” “It’s hard to explain.”
House of Sand is like that, comprised of inexplicable beauty and contemplation, strong women and limited lives. At once harsh and supple seductive and difficult, the film tells a series of stories that are also one story, thinking through time as a sinuous form rather than linear movement.
House of Sand (Casa de Areia)—Theatrical Trailer