The opening shot of the Dominican film Sand Dollars (Dólares de arena), based on the novel by Jean-Noel Pancrazi, immediately puts the viewer into a very awkward and almost voyeuristic position. A young, seemingly emotionless prostitute (Yanet Mojica) is saying goodbye to her much older client who is obviously deeply fond of her. Clearly indifferent to him, she asks, “What will you give me? … Give me that necklace of yours!” We witness all of this in handheld close-ups.
With the spectacular Dominican coastline as its backdrop, a relationship forms between the young girl and her new client, an elderly French lady (Geraldine Chaplin). This place is a troubled paradise, where wealthy old people search for (and buy) love, falling into serious emotional traps along the way.
Laura Amelia Guzman and Israel Cardenas film in quasi-documentary style, but with superb lighting. This non-intrusive, gentle, and even erotic film succeeds perfectly in expressing the omnipresent sadness of the lead character. Chaplin gives what is probably one of the best performances of her rich career. She conveys a deeply layered personality with the precise mimicry of her acting, and the close-ups of her wooden doll-like face reveal much more than her character intends. Poetry, scattered so abundantly in this film, is best encompassed by the underwater shots of Chaplin swimming. There is an almost metaphysical moment when her character becomes obsessed with the poor prostitute who is recalling the storylines of her father’s films.
The directors also manage to underline the social background of their story. The enormous, beautiful mansions scattered throughout the landscape constantly remind us of the foreign colonial presence on Dominican soil. Colonialism has left its imprint, and the behavior of both of the lead characters is the logical consequence.
However, no matter what their social and economic conditions are, one of the defining traits of the film’s characters is their compulsion to feel (any) emotion. Greed, sadness, love, lust, happiness and tranquility are desirable commodities on the island, and people are unscrupulous about getting them. The girl will do anything to obtain a passport which will take her to France, even if it means questioning her relationship with her steady boyfriend. The old lady will do everything she can to please her love interest, but she will not refrain from creating a mother-daughter dynamic with her. In this game of domination, the old master-slave relation comes to mind.
Every aspect of this film has its opposition: the immense wealth of foreign visitors against the poor conditions of the island’s inhabitants, prostitution against private relationships, sex against tenderness, spectacular nature against intimate possession, and finally, young black skin against old white flesh. All of these dialectics contribute to the film’s cinematic uniqueness.
It is no wonder, then, that Sand Dollars has been warmly welcomed at festivals around the world. Although it is Dominican, the film could just as easily be set in, say, modern-day Egypt or India. The problem it portrays is universal, with no obvious solution. It remains be seen whether the two worlds represented in this film can ever be brought closer together. The open ending of the film suggests that there is a chance.
Edited by Lesley Chow
© FIPRESCI 2014