Grade: A-

A multi-generational saga of women living in the middle of nowhere in northern Brazil is the subject of Andrucha Waddington’s visually stunning, emotionally wrenching drama, an intimate epic which remains engrossing over its two-hour (and fifty-nine year) span.

The film, directed by Waddington from a script by Elena Soarez, opens in 1910, as a band of bedraggled refugees from the city led by Vasco de Sa (Ruy Guerra) trudge into the desert wastes of the Maranhao region, supposedly to establish a community on land he’s purchased. His pregnant wife Aurea (Fernanda Torres) and her imperious mother Dona Maria (Fernanda Montenegro) are doubtful about the enterprise and more than a little frightened by the inhospitable locale, especially after their group is accosted by hostile locals, including the imposing Massu (Seu Jorge). The encounter leads most of the newcomers to flee, but the obsessed Vasco insists on staying with his family. And after he’s killed in an accident, the women are forced to fend for themselves in the desolate environment, building a home with Massu’s help.

Nine years pass, during which Maria becomes resigned to living in isolation but Aurea, who’s had a daughter, Maria (Camilla Facundes) with Massu and is still searching for a way to return to civilization, eventually arranges with an itinerant peddler (Emiliano Queiroz) to brave the trek back. That plan miscarries, but Aurea goes ahead anyway, eventually encountering a group of European scientists measuring an eclipse and falling in love with Luiz (Enrique Diaz), a soldier accompanying them. When the outsiders depart, she returns home, only to find disaster has struck.

Flashing forward to 1942, Aurea (now played by Montenegro) remains at the solitary homestead and Maria (now Torres) has turned into the local floozy, much to the distress of her mother and Massu (now played by Luiz Melodia). The crash of a government plane leads to the return of Luiz (played by Stenio Garcia), now an air force officer searching for the wreckage, whom she seduces and with whom she leaves. An epilogue takes the tale to 1969, when Maria (now Montenegro) returns home after many years to visit her aged mother.

The setting of “The House of Sand,” which is distinctly limited though encompassing a wide swath of desert, and the trick of using the same actresses to portray mothers and daughters at different ages could easily have made the film feel either constricted, or affected, or both. But in this instance both contribute to the impact and richness of the piece. The widescreen cinematography of Ricardo Della Rosa is voluptuous, capturing not only the forbidding splendor of the locale but the exquisite period recreations of production designer Tule Peake and costumer Claudia Kopke. And the acting is simply superb. Montenegro, who was so memorable as the stern heroine of “Central Station,” is equally impressive in her multiple roles here. Torres matches her, and the remainder of the cast hasn’t a weak link.

“The House of Sand” can be read in feminist terms, an approach that is certainly defensible. But though its trio of lead characters are women, and the men in their lives are indeed peripheral to their story, what’s most powerful about the film is that it’s a deeply human tale about the vagaries of fate and the tension inherent in family relationships, all within the context of a universe much too large to comprehend, let alone control. It’s a haunting and beautiful film, fascinating in its details and with an ending that’s both heartbreaking and lovely.