The story goes that when financiers of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent film classic The Passion of Joan of Arc screened his initial cut, they were appalled. They had invested quite a bit of money so that Dreyer could recreate the court in Rouen where French clerics would ultimately find Joan guilty of heresy. Yet Dreyer’s movie showed none of the historically accurate sets. It was comprised almost entirely of close-ups and medium shots that focused on the faces of those involved.
History has vindicated Dreyer’s decision.
You might be reminded of that story while watching Dolares de arena (Sand Dollars), the 4th film from the directing team of Israel Cardenas and Laura Amelia Guzman. Their story, adapted liberally from the novel by Jean-Noel Pancrazi, is set on and around the beaches of Samana, on the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic. It is an area of spectacular beauty. But the camera remains so close to its subjects that we rarely get a glimpse of nature. As Guzman explained at a recent screening, they weren’t interested in the postcard. They wanted to focus on the humans who make this paradise their home.
The story is primarily concerned with two of those humans. One is Anne, an aged white woman of European descent. Anne has money to burn. The other is Noeli, a young dark-skinned woman. Noeli has youth and beauty, and is stone cold broke. The dynamic here is not unusual. Old buying young. Wealth buying poverty. But the directors are not concerned with making political or sociological statements. The biggest change they made in the source material was switching the genders of the two main characters from male to female, but gender doesn’t really enter into the story. This is not a story about two women. This is a story about Anne and Noeli.
We meet Noeli as she is saying good-bye to an older European man who we take to be her lover. Before he leaves, she brazenly asks him for a gift “to remember him” and he gives her the gold chain he wears around his neck. In the following scene, Noeli and her boyfriend Yeremi pawn the chain and go to a club. This is how they earn their keep.
Noeli then goes to visit Anne, with whom she has had a three-year relationship. They swim, they make love, they cuddle, and make vague plans for the future. Anne would like to take Noeli on a trip to France and Noeli, who we can safely assume has seen little of the world, is eager to go.
Their transactional relationship will be complicated by jealousies and by happenstance. Nothing terribly surprising transpires in the plot. It is not hard to know where this relationship must be headed. But just as Cardenas and Guzman show no interest in the scenery of Samana, they do not seem very interested in plot either. Instead, they focus like a laser on their two characters.
In this regard, the movie feels a little bit like the work of John Casavettes. There are the merest hints of back-story. We know that Anne has a contentious relationship with her son but we never really learn why. Aside from that glimpse of Noeli with her previous lover, we never get any details on her life or how she came to be where she is. This creates an immediacy to both characters which forces you to consider what they do, not in relation to any past, but in the present. In that, this also might echo the Dardenne brothers. But though you may see glimpses of other styles in Dolares de arena, the filmmakers have created something all their own.
Both Noeli and Anne dream of leaving, and yet no one leaves Samana. The ending, which is left intentionally vague, makes this one point very clear. And in that, Dolares de arena can feel very sad. Indeed, great sadness permeates the frame. On some level, both women know they will never get what they long for. Anne will never capture Noeli’s youth. Noeli will never know the freedom that derives from Anne’s wealth. They merely borrow from each other for a time, before moving on. Sand dollars wash away in the tide.
The movie benefits from an outstanding performance by Geraldine Chaplin as Anne, unabashedly revealing the wrinkles on her skin (she wore no makeup for the film) and the cracks in her heart. Non-professional actor Yanet Mojica brings an insouciance to Noeli that feels very real. One of Cardenas and Guzman’s greatest accomplishments is in blending the very different acting styles of their two leads.
They are not as successful with their camera. Even without glamorising the scenery, they could have brought more visual appeal to the movie. It feels washed out at times. At other times, it can feel dark and drab. There are a lot of close shots of characters riding around on scooters. There are odd framings throughout. What this does, though, is call attention to the faces of Anne and Noeli, and in that Dolares de arena is affecting.
Dolares de arena is the Dominican Republic’s entry in this year’s Foreign Language film Oscar race. Compared to the movies from last year that ultimately made this cut, titles like Leviathan, Tangerines or Ida, Dolares de arena can seem rather slight. But there are small pleasures to be had, deep hearts and dreams to explore.