Sunday, August 13, 2006

House of Sand

Written by Elena Soarez from a story by Soarez, Waddington, and Luiz Carlos Barreto
Sony Pictures Classics

Sometimes, films are just plain art. And when I say that, it makes it sound like I'm going to praise this movie highly; but I mean the statement literally. House of Sand, not to be confused with the one that has sand and fog, is a movie told epically, with beautiful vistas as a backdrop, with a slow pace, and hardly any emotion, or compelling story.

People coming out of this movie might want to slap me for saying such a thing about a movie that on the surface to be everything that an arthouse flick should be. The Manhattan crowd I watched this with, mostly older and skewed female, gave it a nice applause at the end. It reminds me of that "SNL" skit concerning the Clarence Thomas hearings, where the argument wasn't whether Thomas was wrong for mentioning porno and one Long Dong Silver to Anita Hill, but the type of porn he was suggesting wasn't the right kind; Chris Farley says, "Do you feel hardcore porno is the way to go? Cuz I feel women prefer a softer porn," and Dana Cravey as Strom Thurmond says, " with stories and costumes that take them to a different place and time!"

Now, don't get me wrong, House of Sand is no porno; there is one graphic sex scene and that's it, and that's all that makes the movie R-rated. But the spirit of what Carvey says is what makes this a draw for many. I can't say that I disliked it, but I feel like a movie should have more connectivity, presumably, a plot that I can sink my teeth into. One thing you hear more than once in this movie is "there's nothing to do here," or something like that, and we as customers watch this nothing, waiting for something to happen.

The story is this: It's 1910, Brazil, Maranhao, desert, close to the coast. A group of people led by a man named Vasco (Ruy Guerra) are to locate a habitat in the shifting sands of the area, a piece of desert that Vasco has bought. His wife Aurea (Fernanda Torres) is pregnant with their first child, and her mother Donna Maria (Fernanda Montenegro) has tagged along. The place is uninhabitable; very little food, no close cities, and nearby are a tribe of black people descended from fugitive slaves who threaten to force them out. Vasco is hard-headed, wants to force the issue, which leads his men to desert the site, taking the little food left with them. Vasco dies shortly after, leaving Aurea and her mother alone. They befriend one of the black men, Massu (Luiz Melodia), a man of little words who helps them out, perhaps to leave the place. Aurea wants to leave but her mother doesn't--soon the movie skips ten years and they're still there, just one stronger--Aurea's daughter Maria (Camilla Facundes).

It moves along like that a couple of times, and the two main actresses play multiple characters; Montenegro plays Donna, then older Aurea, then older Maria and Torres plays all of her equivalents. It's all about making something out of nothing, how home is where the heart is and all that, but a great piece of emotional weight is missing. For instance, there's a big moment in the middle of the film where Maria walks back home to find her mother entangled with Massu and she storms off, betrayed, confused, and horrified. Another passage of time takes place right after it, and there's not any resolution--Maria has turned into the drunken village whore and Aurea has become some sort of matriarch, her relationship with Massu and her daughter not that clear. In fact, all relationships and situations are just plain murky, so when the next big plot point happens, it's hard to give a damn.

It is fairly watchable--it's a beautiful film to look at, but a bit of a waste if you're looking for a tremendous story.


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