BootsnAll Travel Network

House of Sand

Early yesterday evening I watched the Brazilian film, House of Sand with my friends Ruth and Gerri. They hated it. Gerri thought it was “amateurish.” Ruth found it slow and thought the time changes were awkward, the character switches gimmicky; she became restless and paced around her living room, waiting for it to be over. Some friend I am. I hung on to the last minute and am still haunted by the slow power of the film, by its visual gorgeousness (not since Daughters of the Dust have I seen such composition), and by its questions: given life’s impermanence, what can we hope? what exactly does it mean to “make a life” in the harshest possible circumstances?

First, let me admit that I would leap at the opportunity to spend two hours watching Fernanda Montenegro clean her house. I fell for her subtle, strong, richly-nuanced face and gestures when I saw Central Station and have since looked at every nano-second of film I could find with her in it. She and the dove-white sharp-edged shifting sand dunes of northern Brazil are the stars of this film. If I turned off the sound and just watched Montenegro, the dunes, and the sky, I would be satisfied that I’d had a hell of a film experience.

Fernanda Montenegro’s real-life daughter, Fernanda Torres, who has a face almost as interesting as her mother’s, plays the daughter in the film, and the powerful Seu Jorge (Knockout Ned from City of God) supports them with his physical beauty, intense silence, and force. It is also worth mentioning that the director, Andrucha Waddington, happens to be married to Fernanda Torres and thus is the son-in-law of Fernanda Montenegro. This is family movies taken to a new level.

I understand Gerri’s objection. I don’t find the film amateurish, but its concept (based on a photograph of a house buried in sand) calls attention to itself in ways that suggest a film-school project, and the script (created by a woman who isn’t a member of the family–yet) lacks the poetry of the visuals and is little more than a base for improvisations by the cast. The story is about three generations of women stranded in the dunes. As each woman ages, she changes roles: Montenegro’s daughter ages and becomes Montenegro, whose daughter ages and becomes Torres, who ages and becomes Montenegro. As Oscar Wilde said, women turn into their mothers: that’s their tragedy. In this case, however, as each woman turns into her mother, she becomes reconciled to her life. The “sands of time” motif is a little too obvious, and perhaps the acceptance each woman achieves is a little too pat. What if one of the women had concluded, “I hate this fucking sand; get me the hell out of here”? But she doesn’t. Each one comes to terms with her life, even the youngest, who escapes but never reveals how she feels about her life beyond the dunes. The sand keeps sifting over what people have made. Women keep becoming their mothers. (And if your mother is Fernanda Montenegro, how bad can that be?) The wind keeps on blowing. But those visuals are indelible: those white arcs of sand and sky, wind-ripples, sharp edges and cloud banks. White-on-white, sand on the lips, sand in every crease and orifice of the human body. I can feel the grit of it in my eyes.

Would I be as moved by the film as I am, if I had not had my own adventures in the rust-red dunes of Namibia? Blinded, dazzled, and nearly overcome by heat stroke among those snaking mountains of sand, I doubted I would ever see anything that dramatic again in my life. I haven’t, till I saw this film. But the Khoisan people who live in the dunes of Namibia have the most difficult lives imaginable, foraging for desert melons and sucking precious moisture from them, pumping hours for drips of brackish water from nearly-dry bore holes, and erecting tin or plank shacks to screen out the sand, the wind, and the killing sun. Every man and woman born in that landscape ultimately makes some kind of life. That is the miracle–as Faulkner said, not that we survive but that we prevail. House of Sand raises all the attendant questions about the ways we prevail; the film pays its respects to all the people, especially the women, who prevail in the most inhospitable places of the earth. I will play it again and again in my mind’s eye. I give it–not quite five stars, but a special Kendall award for Year’s Most Unforgettable Visuals.

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One response to “House of Sand”

  1. Maya says:

    Kendall: This is a lovely response to Andrucha’s film. I’m glad that you were able to get past your friends’ reactions to appreciate the film on its own merits.

    Thank you also for the tip of the hat.

    I love your quotes from Wilde and Faulkner and your final paragraph is evocative. I’ve folded it in to my own interview.

    Thank you for staying true to your own vision and your own language.

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