THE HOUSE OF SAND — ** 1/2 — Fernanda Torres, Fernanda Montenegro; in Portuguese, with English subtitles; rated R (sex, nudity, violence, profanity).

Arguably, the rather indulgent pacing of "The House of Sand" turns out to be the film's greatest strength — and its biggest weakness.

On one hand, by taking his time, Brazilian filmmaker Andrucha Waddington (2002's "Me You Them") is able to develop the characters, which results in some very strong performances.

On the other hand, this beautifully photographed drama feels slow and lethargic. And at least one of the two major characters doesn't come off as sympathetic as you'd expect. That would be Aurea, played by Fernanda Torres (1997's "Four Days in September").

Aurea's much-older husband, Vasco de Sa (Ruy Guerra) has dragged her out to the desert, along with her mother, Dona Maria (Fernanda Montenegro).

His plan is to build a home there and make the area habitable. Instead, he's killed after a heated domestic argument, which leaves his pregnant wife and mother-in-law stranded in the desert.

The material follows these two characters — and others — over a 50-years-plus period of time (the story starts in 1910). Waddington and screenwriter Elena Soarez also introduce us to Aurea's daughter, Maria.

As a result, Montenegro winds up not only playing Dona Maria in the film's first section, but older versions of Aurea and Maria as well. (If that isn't confusing enough, Torres also doubles as another, earlier version of Maria.)

However, the Oscar-nominated Montenegro (1998's "Central Station") is always a welcome sight, even if her performances here are in service of material that's not nearly as good as she is.

Montenegro's real-life daughter, Torres, doesn't fare as well. Some of that has to do with the unsympathetic characterizations of the earlier Aurea and Maria. (Waddington and Torres are also married in real life, which makes the film a family affair of sorts.)

"The House of Sand" is rated R for scenes of simulated sex and other sexual contact, full female and partial male nudity, violence (domestic, as well as war violence), and sexual language (including profanity). Running time: 115 minutes.