Some films leave you physically altered; the catharsis they serve up is more than just lights playing on a wall. It is physical, possibly chemical. When the screen goes dark and house lights rise again, the shadow play just witnessed has taken a toll, a real one. Whatever the journey, the actors have mimicked it effectively enough that you feel as though you too have come through changed.
House of Sand overwhelms from the first frame -- a harsh white mountain of sand and then just a tiny black spot of a man. He is dwarfed. In front of such hostile nature we are dwarfed. The wind wraps his voice in sand and blows it away. A caravan plods across the dune, each step a struggle against the shifting earth. The wind erases their tracks as they move. It is not difficult to understand what is temporary in this landscape.
Then water. Vasco has reached the tiny lagoon he has purchased for himself, his beautiful young wife Aurea (Fernanda Torres) and her mother Doña Maria (Fernanda Montenegro). The two women are unhinged at the prospect of scratching out an existence in so hostile an environment. Then Vasco collapses and the women must fend for themselves, relying on a nearby colony of escaped slaves to show them the way.
Aurea gives birth to a daughter, Maria, and spends the next decade waiting for the child to grow. Aurea believes she will escape her desert exile when Maria is old enough to cross the desert safely. The life she leads in the intervening years is a struggle with nature, a stripping away of the trappings of civilization, but not of the civilized.
House of Sand follows Aurea as she plods through the shifting sands of her life, her footsteps disappearing as she advances. Through most of her adulthood Aurea stubbornly pursues both survival and escape. The more she makes a life in the sand, the more determined she seems to leave it, holding tightly to a dream of a world she has long since lost. Music. The wonders of technological achievement. Time passes. Man steps foot on the moon, but what does he find?
For some reason I relate the visceral experience I had watching House of Sand to the one I had watching The Descent. I don't know why. Two more different films I cannot name. House of Sand is sumptuous, poetic, full of primal fits of emotion and gorgeous leaps of the imagination. And it takes place, most definitely ABOVE ground. The Descent is a horror film, full of things that jump and bump and chew and gnaw. It is full of bones and people who are meat and bones to be. It is loud and scary, bloody and violent. The two films really are opposites in every way. And The Descent, the story of a group of female cave explorers wandering about in unexplored Appalachian caverns, definitely takes place down below.
Nonetheless, I believe there is something that connects these films. Perhaps it is their sheer physicality. Perhaps it is their female-dominated casts. Perhaps it is that catharsis thing I was talking about. I spent the full two hours of The Descent squirming in my seat, my body producing adrenaline to spare. When the film was done, I was spent. I had gone through the scary depths with this group of women and come back to the world above shaken, changed. I needed a martini (also shaken) and quick.
Perhaps what these two films share is an understanding of how overwhelming and PRIMAL nature is. Even though House of Sand unfolds in the shifting desert, there are moments when it captures that feeling of being buried alive. There is no resisting the desert. It advances whether you have built up structures to resist it or not. Similarly, there is no resisting the world of strong emotions -- the suffocating effect of being forced to lead a life not chosen is reminiscent of the terrible claustrophobia of being trapped under ground. In The Descent the subterranean environment mirrors the pent up hostilities between the film's two main characters. Eventually buried anger and hatred will manifest itself in some way. In this case it is as sightless, woman-eating creatures crawling the caves in search of their next meal. In House of Sand the emotional landscape is so vast, eventually we know it will overwhelm everything, burning all external resistance away and leaving just the pure primal self.
House of Sand opens August 18, 2006.
The Descent now playing.
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED