HOUSE OF SAND Directed by Andrucha Waddington, written by Elena Soarez, with Fernanda Montenegro, Fernanda Torres, Seu Jorge, Ruy Guerra and Luiz Melodia. A Mongrel Media release. Subtitles. 115 minutes. Opens Friday (August 18). For venues and times, see Movies, page 92. Rating: NNNN
Park City, Utah - it's loud and crowded inside the bar at the Yarrow Hotel in Park City. Andrucha Waddington sits huddled by the fireplace, trying to make himself heard above the din.
"The idea of the film came from a picture," he barks. "My producer came back from the northeast of Brazil and said he saw a picture on the wall of a bar. It was of a house half-covered by sand."
Between the throng of Sundance deal-makers and the blaring Utah rock radio, I can barely hear him.
"There had been a woman living there for almost a century," he struggles on. "When she died, the sand took over her house."
Festivals live on incongruity. Waddington's House Of Sand is as quiet as a desert at midday. Most of it takes place against a landscape of bleached sand and the white noise of wind blowing in from the sea. The film is desolate, like a good western, although its ambitions are more existential. But Waddington has been on a festival tour lately, pitching his subtle story of a mother and daughter in noisy bars like this one.
It's a fitting incongruity, because this is a man who can cite Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman In The Dunes as an influence one minute and admit to having directed over a hundred commercials and music videos the next.
"It was a kind of exercise," he says.
So were the particular demands of this shoot. The story, covering three periods over 59 years, demanded female actors who could handle that range. So Waddington cast Fernanda Montenegro, the Oscar-nominated star of Central Station, to play three different roles, one in each period. Then he cast Fernanda Torres opposite her. Torres is his wife and Montenegro his mother-in-law. That sounds like a telenovela waiting to happen, but Waddington insists that everything was "very professional."
"Our relations on the set never mixed with our personal relationships," he says. "I treat my whole crew as my family. Fernanda Montenegro was always trying to give her best, and Fernanda Torres, my wife, as well. Also, we were living in separate houses during the shoot. Sometimes I went to sleep with her, of course, but I had my own room in a small bed-and-breakfast."
He considers himself lucky to be married to "one of the best actresses of her generation" and son-in-law to "one of the best actresses in the world." He credits Montenegro's success to pure diligence.
"She's a kind of mad dog worker," he says. "She comes from theatre, so she has something really incredible. She thinks a lot."
But her power, he says, is intuitive. "She's an animal of acting. It's like in Santeria when you receive a spirit. That's how she receives a character."
Waddington also cast Brazilian music stars Seu Jorge and Luiz Melodia to play a pivotal love interest, calling them "natural born actors."
Having worked with Walter Salles as both producer on films and assistant director on commercials, Waddington looks set to follow fellow Brazilians Salles and Fernando Meirelles into international careers.
He's ready, but on his terms.
"With a film in Portuguese, you have to limit the size of the picture," he says. "My next project is called Conquistador. It's the story of Cortez and the conquest of Mexico. It's a $40 million Hollywood production but played in Spanish.
"That," he admits, "was a fight."
HOUSE OF SAND (Andrucha Waddington) Rating:NNNN
Central Station star Fernanda Montenegro turns in not one but three tour-de-force performances opposite her own daughter, Fernanda Torres, who tears up the screen in two roles.
House Of Sand is a chamber drama set against an epic landscape in northeast Brazil. In 1910, Torres is Aurea, dragged into the desert by her mad husband, who soon leaves her and her mother (Montenegro) stranded with only some nearby escaped slaves for company. As the years pass, Montenegro takes on the role of the older Aurea, with Torres now her wild daughter.
Both the script and casting allow for a master class in acting, with the stark, wide-screen desert vistas serving as constant antagonist.
Engrossing, even when nothing happens.