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I didn't even know that there was such a place in Brazil as Lençóis Maranhenses. It is an expanse of sand dunes that look like the Sahara interspersed with lakes. It is bizarre yet beautiful. And it is is the setting for the new Brazilian film, House of Sand. It tells the epic story of three generations of women, Dona Maria, her daughter, Áurea, and her granddaughter, Maria. Dona Maria and Áurea are brought to the land of dunes and lakes by Áurea's husband who thinks that it is the promised land. Shortly after their arrival, the husband dies, leaving the two women stranded with little food and no clear idea of where they are or how to escape. And Áurea is pregnant. The women are helped by some escaped slaves who are also living in this godforsaken place. It is 1910 and House of Sand then follows the lives of these women for the next 59 years, as they come to terms with each other and with the sand. And there's a nice astronomy theme. Early in the film, in 1910, we see Halley's Comet in the sky at night, then in 1919, a scientific expedition arrives to view the total solar eclipse and verify the predictions of Einstein's general theory of relativity. Finally, at the end of the movie in 1969, They discuss the fact that men have walked on the moon. These are almost the only events in the outside world which impinge on the isolated lives of these women. Áurea almost escapes with the eclipse expedition but they leave without her. I won't even go into the events which follow in the next half century. You'll have to see for yourself.
House of Sand is very beautiful and very sad. There is almost no action; something of note happens about once a decade. But it is impossible not to be drawn into this story. The cinematography is breathtaking. The beauty and desolation of the area adds to poignancy of the lives of the three women. Set against this backdrop are the two amazing actresses, Fernanda Montenegro and Fernanda Torres. Montenegro, who was nominated for an Oscar for Central Station, plays the Dona Maria in 1910, then Áurea in 1942 and finally Maria in 1969. And Torres plays both Áurea in 1910 and Maria in 1942. So you have to keep your wits about you. At first, I couldn't figure out what was happening when the actresses switched generations. I thought it was some kind of flashback. But once I figured out the shifting generations, it worked well. And I love these actresses. I think they have the most beautiful expressive faces I have ever seen on the screen. And these are not starlets. Montenegro is 76 and Torres is 40.
House of Sand is like a Gabriel García Márquez story. There is so much longing and unrequited dreams. As the decades slowly pass, the women and the land become one. Their life struggle becomes like the passage of geologic time. But House of Sand is never boring and it never feels too long. The director, Andrucha Waddington, is veteran director of TV commercials, and the cinematographer, Ricardo Della Rosa, has only done one previous film. You would never guess it from watching this movie. This is one of the best movies I've seen this year and I expect it will be nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. Both Torres and Montenegro should be nominated for best actress as well. This is a movie that should definitely be seen on the big screen.