"The House of Sand" is somewhat a history piece, though the opening moments oddly evoke a foreboding future. Members of a family trek across a barren sea of dry sand, the eerily colored dunes like the surface of some alien planet. With their bedraggled servants and tattered hat boxes, they seem to be outcasts of wealthy society; one or the other has been brought low and scattered. There's no need to overthink the parallels, but they are led by a raving madman, one who stubbornly wishes to stay the course no matter how desperate the circumstances.
The original title of this film is "Casa de Areia," so it can be forgiven for its name being so similar to "The House of Sand and Fog" (2003), which starred Ben Kingsley as a former desert dweller moving his way up in wealthy Western society. The opposite happens to this family, and all that is left of it are a mother and her pregnant daughter who must fend for themselves after the daughter's crazed husband perishes in an accident.
The period is not much more than alluded to, creating a weird sense of disconnection exaggerated by director Andrucha Waddington's unconventional plotting. Gaps of time pass, and it's a shock to realize it. Do we know for sure what desert these people are in? It is occupied by the grown children and young grandchildren of freed slaves, who offer some help to the stranded women, but we don't know for sure how they got there. Many years later, scientists arrive to study an eclipse. Decades later, war planes fly overhead. The women grow old. A daughter grows up. The grandmother dies.
The balance between everyday plot and parable keeps "The House of Sand" interesting, though some viewers might find it difficult to hold their attention to what is on the surface a story about three women who stare at dunes for half a century. There are times, also, when it gets a little too close to "2001" meets "The English Patient." But it holds rewards, especially when observed with the kind of boundless patience of its characters. *** Wayne Melton