A dandy long shot—in House of Sand (2006)—of Brazilian travellers and their donkeys treading a sand flat in 1910 precedes a close-up of two bone-weary women walking side by side. They are mother and daughter, Donna Maria (Fernanda Montenegro) and Aurea (Fernanda Torres), the latter married to a loony gent named Vasco, the payer of Aurea’s debts, who intends to construct for his young wife a figurative house of sand among the dunes of Brazil. In other words, he has moved Aurea and her mother to start a new life in this barren place. But a house of sand is still a house of sand. The trip is a miserable failure: Vasco dies in an accident and Aurea and Donna Maria, hating the sand dunes, are henceforth stranded. They can’t get out on their own—Aurea is pregnant—and except for an itinerant man who finally dies, during a ten-year period no one can help them.
Unpredictably, Donna Maria starts liking the place, stating there is no man there to tell her what to do. The women in the film do depend on men, though, and willingly have sex with them. Screenwriter Elena Soarez is not trying to make a feminist point in Casa de Areia. And it must be pointed out that after Aurea’s daughter Maria (she, too, is played by Fernanda Torres) grows up, still in the sandy locus, the house of sand she lives in is partly of her own making.
Nevertheless, time keeps passing. In 1919 there is an eclipse; in the Forties there is World War II aircraft in the sky. Geological permanence in this northeastern part of Brazil contrasts with the impermanence of the human situation, with the aging of Aurea and others. In 1969 a middle-aged Maria informs her mother that men have recently landed on the moon. Aurea wants to know what they found there. ‘Nothing,” Maria replies. “I heard they just found sand.” Along with the passage of time, then, there is the final acceptance of the women’s lot in life: really, of Aurea’s decision to remain in Maranhao when she didn’t have to, for decades. I believe this is what Soarez is implying in the above bit of dialogue.
House of Sand has something to say, then, and the script is an essentially brilliant one. The expert director is Andrucha Waddington, Torres’s husband and Montenegro’s son-in-law—and what gratifying performances these two women give!
House of Sand is in Portugese with English subtitles.