You can’t even tell what you’re looking at initially. From the air, it could be a vast, varied expanse of earth. Or, with its thick swirls of creamy white and chocolatey brown, it could be a slab of mud pie ice cream.
Turns out it’s the former — the opening shot of “House of Sand” — but it provides an early indication of both the film’s stunning cinematography and one of its pervasive themes: Perspective is essential.
Everything happens and nothing happens in this emotionally arresting, visually dazzling epic, depending on how you look at it.
Birth and death, hope and disappointment, scientific discovery and long stretches of solitude — all of it transpires on the sandy northern edge of Brazil, where three generations of women struggle to survive, played by two actresses of amazing versatility.
Director Andrucha Waddington brings out the best in real-life mother and daughter Fernanda Montenegro and Fernanda Torres, sharing the screen in roles written specifically for them. And the script from Elena Soarez (based on a story by Waddington, Soarez and Luis Carlos Barreto) allows them plenty of opportunities to reveal the rich shadings of their characters.
The tone can be hypnotic and the pacing requires some patience; just give in to the film’s rhythms and you’ll find that you’re different walking out than you were walking in.
Torres’ Aurea has already begun changing the first time we see her. The year is 1910, and she’s trekking across the desert with her husband, Vasco (Ruy Guerra), in a caravan of people and animals along the lip of a steep sand dune. Aurea is pregnant, and sweating and panting alongside her is her mother, Dona Maria (Montenegro), the only other woman in the group.
Vasco has dragged them all out there because he believes the land will be fertile. He is, of course, mad, which Aurea begins to realize soon after they arrive. But he is her husband and the father of her child, and so she is stuck — and terrified.
The house he’s having built in this desolate, unforgiving section provides shelter but no security, either emotionally or physically — hence the title, not to be confused with “House of Sand and Fog,” the 2003 drama starring Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley. (The similarity is an unfortunate result of the translation from Portuguese.)
Vasco dies in a quick, hideous accident during construction and the minions who followed him scatter. Aurea is left to give birth to her child — a daughter, Maria — with only her mother’s help. And so in this open, harsh world, she is both free and trapped.
Waddington conveys their loneliness through sparse dialogue and Ricardo Della Rosa’s bleakly beautiful cinematography. Often, the only sound is of laundry drying on the line, flapping noisily in the unrelenting wind.
Aurea and Dona Maria are forced to do just that. They try to find ways to leave but can’t; chances for rescue arise and agonizingly disappear. Time passes; Maria turns 9 years old. The two women have learned to rely on each other, but they get sporadic help from a neighbor, Massu (Seu Jorge, whom you might recognize from his Portuguese versions of David Bowie songs in “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou”).
Having grown up in a nearby settlement founded by slaves, Massu knows the land and teaches the women how to negotiate for food. Jorge provides a stoic source of strength as the only man in their life, who will ultimately become a crucial fixture as they settle into a calmer daily existence.
More time passes; it’s 1942. Montenegro now plays an older version of Aurea, with Torres playing a reckless, self-destructive version of Maria in her early 30s. Traces of World War II surround them, offering them more contact with the outside world. But whereas they tried to escape before, by now they’ve just stopped bothering. (Still later, Montenegro appears as a hippie incarnation of Maria in 1969 at the film’s poignant finish.)
It might sound like “nothing happens” is the more apt way to describe “House of Sand,” but Waddington subtly lets the tension build over and over again. Throughout the film’s 59-year span, everything is in perpetual, imperceptible motion. The sand rises and falls; the water creeps closer. And all the while, suspense slowly mounts as the landscape threateningly shifts.
The strength of the actresses’ performances remains the one constant. Torres can be delicately lovely as Aurea and defiantly ablaze as Maria. Meanwhile Montenegro, the grand veteran who received an Oscar nomination for 1998’s “Central Station,” exudes an intelligent, regal dignity in all three of the roles she plays.
Watching these two women together in this setting isn’t just a joy. It’s a testament to the power of female strength and loyalty, regardless of time and place.