House of Sand/ Casa de areia is a movie about the vastness of the white desert of Maranho. Against this out of place, out of space land of primordial beauty, human destines are pencilled with grace and resilience. Some women travel to end of the world to reclaim their lost identity and to thrive in a mysterious, yet inhospitable realm of sand. The shreds of turquoise sea and lush vegetation are merely details in the vastness of this land. The poetry of Brazilian scenery resonates with the asperity of life and the delicacy of the women's perseverance.
Maria and Aurea, mother and daughter -in movie, as well as in real life- are faced with a brutal awakening when left by the latter's husband alone, in the middle of the desert, in a half-finished house of sand. Vasco de Sa believed himself to be a visionary man, set on conquering the aridity of the white desert, who eventually failed to convince either his settlers or his wife that farming in the middle of nowhere could be done. His death leaves the two women at the mercy of Massu, a fisherman, grandson of a runaway slave who introduces them to the small community on an island nearby and Chico, an old trader that brings salt. Pregnant Aurea is persuaded by her old and sick mother to wait until the child is born and the rain season is over before embarking on a trip back to Sao Paolo. Such much craved for and anticipated departure from Maranho shall keep the three women -mother, daughter and granddaughter- stuck into sand and hope for the next ten years. And even when they are faced with the choice, Donna Maria refuses to leave this remote paradise where no man ever holds any power over her and the beauty of life resides in its simplicity. A comet passes, war comes and goes, scientists visit the desert to take remarkable photos and Aurea happens to cross their path in her search for Chico's lost trail. A nice man in uniform -a symbol of her own and later on, of her daughter's restlessness and yearning for the civilized world- named Luis is drawn to her story and promises to take her back to the real world. A night spent under the stars where a multitude of dreams and hopes ignite only to crumble in the white sand at dawn, washed by the perennial rain. Still, even in this dry, tedious land of sand, passion is as hot as the scorching sun and it is only a matter of time before Aurea decides to cut her hair and give herself to Massu. And the story goes on for another fifty years.
Plain in the description of love, dialogues or isolation, the movie is based on contrasts- the discrepancy between the whiteness of the sand and people's colourless clothes, white skin versus black skin, the different personalities of mothers and daughters. Sand as any other landscape with its own particularities comes to shape people's dispositions and choices and build them into resilient human beings. One needs to be strong and flexible as a palm tree in order to survive the wind, the rain and the aridity of the land. Houses are as pointless as plans and one has to adapt to both climate and reality. It takes Aurea half of a lifetime to come to terms with her destiny and to find love and music where her eyes failed to see. Massu, much to his lack of verbosity, is wiser in his ability to recognize love and fight for it. He has been there longer and survival runs through his veins. Still, a wild and restless heart as Aurea's is brought to life in her daughter's eyes and spirit who, years later, uses her sexuality to escape her confinement and when the opportunity arises flees this paradise into the real world. The quietness of both place and people, where fire and sea merge into the chalky land has the poetry of an old canvass that paints itself into a hidden seductiveness of the mind and heart.
The performances are exquisite and the galloping story and the switching of characters and ages add up to the flavour of the movie. Fernanda Montenegro as a adult Aurea plays an emotional scene when asking long-lost Luis to save her daughter (now played by Fernanda Torres) and return her to the civilized world where she belongs. Her eyes and softness of the face speak more than the intimate details of her movements and voice. The unforgiving dunes somehow melt people's hearts and make them return to the finesse of the sand that conquers all and saves everything.