Women fight the elements in Northern Brazil


By Brooks Robards - April 5, 2007

Proximity to nature attracts many to the Vineyard, but Brazilian director Andrucha Waddington's powerful "House of Sand" ("Casa de Areia") is a reminder of how brutal and dominating those breathtaking natural elements can be. The Martha's Vineyard Film Society will present the award-winning film Saturday, April 7, at the Katharine Cornell Theater in Vineyard Haven.

The story begins in 1910, when Aurea (Fernanda Torres) and Dona Maria (Fernanda Montenegro) are dragged by Aurea's crazy husband Vasco (Ruy Guerra) to the remote northern Brazilain province of Maranha. Vasco promptly dies in an accident, leaving his pregnant wife and her mother to their own devices in an environment that makes a Vineyard Nor'easter look like a gentle summer breeze.

In the opening scene, cinematographer Ricardo Della Rosa fills the screen with breathtaking overhead shots of a moonscape desert filled with giant, sand dune crescents. An ant-sized caravan of people and animals struggle into the frame along the horizon. The first close-ups are of Aurea and her mother, sweating and struggling to keep up.

You may recognize Montenegro for her Oscar-nominated role in "Central do Brasil," where she played Dora, an embittered former teacher who writes letters for the illiterate. Montenegro's expressive face brings dignity to a role in "House of Sand" that spans almost 60 years. She also manages to carry off quicksilver shifts at different points in the movie, from playing the mother to becoming the daughter. Torres must make similar switches from Aurea to the grown-up child she has birthed, and once the audience catches on, the sudden transformations work well.

Director Waddington, who also produced "Me, You, Them," never loses track of the shifting sands that control this oceanside world, creeping unasked into its fragile, palm-leaf houses until they must be abandoned. She balances the human dimensions of the story beautifully with that of the isolation and cruel majesty of the landscape.

Brazilian race politics, with their echoes of American racial issues, enter the characters' lives very early on, when a gang of runaway African slaves confronts the settlers. Gentle Massu (Seu Jorge, then Luz Melodia), however, reaches out to the destitute women with offers of food and help.

Eventually he and Dona Maria become lovers, and the only false step in the movie occurs when Aurea's daughter Maria as a child discovers her mother (now played by Fernandez) and Massu making love. The adult Maria (now Torres) turns into a promiscuous boozer, and it looks as if that single sight of her mother in flagrante destroyed her moral fiber. In fact, Dona Maria and Massu enjoy a stable and loving relationship.

The elements play their recurring roles as well. Frustrated by her isolation, Aurea makes repeated attempts to return to civilization. A plan to sell the goats that help the women survive falls through when the trader who was their connection to the outside world dies.

Another time when Aurea starts off across the dunes, she is startled to see an eclipse overhead. Then she encounters a group of astronomers photographing the event and becomes infatuated with one of the soldiers sent to protect them. She extracts a promise that they will take her, her mother and her daughter with them, but once again is foiled.

Eventually Dona Maria and Aurea become resigned to their fate, but in yet another plot twist, the same army officer who became infatuated with Aurea earlier returns to retrieve the body of a pilot. The granddaughter Maria plays on his memories of her mother and manages to escape the environment that has so oppressed the three women.

At the movie's end in 1969, a now-worldly Maria returns to visit her mother, describing how an astronaut has landed on the moon and playing a Chopin sonata on a newfangled tape recorder.

"House of Sand," which took four years to make, won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize this year at Sundance and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize in World Cinema as well. It is based -- not on a real story -- but on a single photograph of a Maranhao palm hut.

"House of Sand," Saturday, April 7, 7:30 pm., Katharine Cornell Theatre, Spring Street, Vineyard Haven. Tickets $6 or $4 for Martha's Vineyard Film Society members at the door. Doors open at 7 pm.