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'The House of Sand' stands on dazzling performances

"The House of Sand" is the story of two Brazilian women in the dunes and their steadily sinking casa. It's a grand outdoor spectacle (the only real interiors are within tents, and those are hard to come by) and a perfectly juicy melodrama.

Directed by Andrucha Waddington from Elena Soárez's script, the film opens in 1910 (and closes many decades later) on the perilous white sands of Maranhão, the state on Brazil's northeast coast. The opening long shots of a caravan crossing the dunes are typical desert epic stuff, but abruptly there's a cut to Áurea (Fernanda Torres) and her mother, Maria (Fernanda Montenegro), trudging through the stinging winds.

Áurea's domineering husband, Vasco (Ruy Guerra), has dragged them from the civilized climes of the state capital to the middle of nowhere to build on the land he bought. He's content to scream at whomever and throw his pregnant wife around. Convinced this real estate is prosperous and with no apparent regard for who perishes while he prospers, he's like something out of a Werner Herzog picture, living in foolish defiance of nature.

But one morning, Dona Maria awakes to discover that everyone in camp has run off, fearing for their lives and leaving the two women and this crazy man to fend for themselves. Wait, strike that. Part of the unfinished home collapses on Vasco, and the two women promptly bury him and set out for what appears to be the least possible walk home ever filmed. Montenegro, in black, is appropriately dressed for a funeral. But sensing doom, they about- face and return to the house, which isn't far from the ocean and will be partially swallowed by the desert as the years pass.

And pass they do! Suddenly, Áurea's unborn child is a 10-year-old, also named Maria, but the passing decades have done little to lessen Áurea's hunger to return to more stable ground. Despite Maria's objections, she trades their valuables for whatever will get them somewhere else, even daring to leave to the house to Massu (Seu Jorge), the resourceful salt dealer who lives with a nearby colony of fugitive slaves and whose advice and assistance are the only reasons Áurea and Maria remain alive for the first few months.

The years never cease falling casually away, and what you realize as the time flies is just how firmly Waddington has you in his grip. ``The House of Sand" is not especially deep, but it is extremely easy to get lost in. Waddington and Soárez conduct the film in a historical parallel universe. The sun is blinding, but the women remain in the dark about how much the world is changing, as 1919 becomes 1942, and 1942 becomes 1969, and as the Fernandas begin trading roles. In the movie's most inspired and magical development, Montenegro ages into older Áurea, and Torres plays Áurea's daughter Maria as an adult.

These two do the sort of understated but emotionally invested acting that you go to the movies to experience. Montenegro leaves a particularly deep impression on the scenes she isn't in: You can always feel her watchful gaze. It's also fascinating to see the slight degrees to which both women modulate their characters once they've exchanged roles, as if they'd learned from how the previous woman handled the part. Torres's forbidding nature as Áurea turns loose and girlish as Maria. And Montenegro's severity -- reinforced by wire-rimmed glasses and a schoolteacher's bun -- becomes sensual. Both actors are marvelous.

Yes, ``The House of Sand," is the sort of glamorous film where a woman can give herself a gorgeous salon haircut with a pair of shears and no mirror. And, sure, this is the kind of picture where sex with a dashing soldier or a handsome runaway slave is the ideal tonic for existential loneliness. But where's the crime? In many senses, the movie is of a piece with the great, sudsy throwaway women's dramas from ancient Hollywood. The big difference is that the Fernandas have much better tans.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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