starring Guillermo Toledo, Marián Aguilera, María Botto, Fernando Ramallo
written and directed by Dominic Harari & Teresa Pelegri
Casa de Areia
starring Fernanda Montenegro, Fernanda Torres, Ruy Guerra, Seu Jorge
screenplay by Elena Soárez
directed by Andrucha Waddington
by Walter Chaw Married hyphenates Dominic Harari and Teresi Pelegri craft a screwball comedy (which has the audacity to end with the final line of Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot) about what happens when good Jewish girl Leni (Marián Aguilera) brings Palestinian nebbish boyfriend Rafi (Guillermo Toledo) home to meet her My Big Fat Greek Wedding ethnic cartoon family. There's the blind, rifle-toting old fossil fond of recounting his days of potting Arabs along the Gaza strip; the short, hysterical Jewish mother; the slutty older sister who only fucks anything with a dick because mama loved little sister more; the younger brother who's newly fanatical about the Koran and the observance of the Jewish Sabbath; and the niece who's a monster because, well, who wouldn't be in that household? Discomfort turns into farce when Rafi drops a cube of frozen soup out a window, killing someone who might be Leni's father (said father later mistaking a black prostitute for Leni's mother)--this event also leading to the discovery that Leni's mother has never had an orgasm and the tableaux homorte where grandpa is caught groping Rafi during a trip to the loo.
Yet Only Human (Seres queridos) is somehow not terrible. There's warmth to Toledo's performance (as well as a wide-eyed earnestness to Aguilera's) that forgives the tedious proselytizing and forced slapstick to a degree, making for a few surprised laughs even if a late-in-the-game argument about Jerusalem thuds with all the grace of an Ayn Rand screed. I liked these people in the same way I like people I've met at Human Rights festivals and screenings for Al Gore documentaries--people so enlightened that they've thoroughly repressed their innate racism, sublimating it into something that resembles the beatific self-satisfaction of the holy idiot. Only Human would like to be more than a Stanley Kramer film about the Intifada, but alas, the only lesson it has to impart is that a gifted, charismatic cast can elevate the most tired material into something closer to mediocrity. Its ultimate shrug and a prayer, then, carries with it--unintentionally, I think--the message that there's actually hope in being resigned to our essential hopelessness.
Hopelessness also rules the day in Andrucha Waddington's ravishing House of Sand (Casa de Areia), a distaff Lawrence of Arabia married to Nicolas Roeg's Castaway in which two sets of mothers and daughters find themselves adrift in the vast nothing of the Brazilian desert. Shot with real genius by Ricardo Della Rosa, Waddington's film is pregnant with silence and emptiness. It's like a Portuguese Carroll Ballard film where nature serves as the first testament to the actions of man, or like Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes (indeed, Hiroshi Segawa's cinematography in that picture is the precursor to Della Rosa's in this) as another telling of the Sisyphus myth, whereby, if Kirkegaard is to be believed, man can only find solace in the knowledge that all his tomorrows will be identical to all his yesterdays. Aurea (Fernanda Torres) is dragged to the frontier by her mad husband (Ruy Guerra), Aurea's mother Maria (Fernanda Montenegro) in tow, when the husband accidentally kills himself and the rest of their settlement flees to less desperate climes. Over the course of the next six decades, Aurea, Maria, and Aurea's daughter struggle to carve out an existence in a harsh, implacable landscape that seems solely interested in swallowing up every trace of them should they ever take a moment to rest.
House of Sand is about the nobility of the human animal, desperate to leave its mark in the shifting sand and made mute and numb by the effort. It sees triumph in ambition--it's truly the journey and not the destination (oblivion), marking this as one of the more existentially graceful arthouse pieces in years. Without pretense, without trickery beyond the decision to forego trickery, it tells its story as an idyll, and in its ornate, hyper-detailed structuralism it reminded me a lot of Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon. The most beautiful-looking film of the year so far, House of Sand also happens to be the best Roeg film since The Man Who Fell To Earth. There's steel in the three generations of women depicted in the film (real-life mother/daughter actors who, poignantly, switch roles as time rolls on), and there's poetry in the revelation that the whole film was inspired by one photograph of a lonely shack standing against entropy and the inexorable wilderness. Originally published: August 11, 2006.