This review already published at PassionForCinema.com:House of Sand & Fog.
The Great American Dream, an idea that has been succesfully sold to US and the world over. The dream of working from the way up, owning your home, car, and having the freedom to lead your life on your own. It was a dream that seduced not just Americans, but millions of people all over the world. And so they came, some to enjoy the freedom which was a mirage in their own nation, some to earn more and achieve prosperity, some for career advancement. They came from all corners of the world, from Asia, from Europe, from Latin America,from Africa. They were motivated by the rags to riches stories of immigrants who came with a few pennies, and managed to build a million dollar empire. But there were some for whom the dream went totally sour, it turned out to be a nightmare.
The House of Sand and Fog, is a 2003 movie which deals with 2 individuals for whom the American dream ended up as a nightmare.
Massoud Amir Behrani( Ben Kingsley), a high ranking official in the Iranian Army during the Shah’s regime, left his country, after the 1979 Revolution, and is now eking out a living in San Francisco. His family is comprised of his wife Nadereh( Shohreh Agdashloo), his married daughter Soraya and his teenage son Esmail( Jonathan Ahdout). He makes a living by doing odd jobs, but maintains a facade of being a businessman to his family. He buys a small home near the coast, and plans to sell it off later, so that he could buy a larger home for his family.
The hitch is that this home once belonged to Kathy Nicolo( Jennifer Connely). Kathy a former junkie, deserted by her husband, leads a totally miserable life, in depression. She has been evicted from her home, due to a bureaucratic gaffe, which has listed her as a tax evader. Her home was sold in auction to Massoud.
Kathy feeling she has been wronged, takes the help of Dy.Sheriff Lester Burdon( Ron Eldard) and her attorney Connie Walsh( Frances Fisher) to get her home back. Lester himself is suffering from an unhappy marriage, and he starts to have an affair with Kathy. Massoud however refuses to sell the home for anything less than it’s actual value. And the home becomes a point of contention betwen Massoud and Kathy.
For Massoud who has spent all his savings on his daughter’s wedding, the home is his only hope for a better future. He wants to sell it off, and buy a new villa, as also finance his son’s education. For Kathy, the home is her only means of livelihood, some thing to live for. Her entire life has been in a total mess, and without this home, it would only worsen further.
From the start to it’s highly tragic ending, director Vadim Perelman crafts a movie, that is moving, unsettling and disturbing. The movie wonderfully showcases the lives of people like Massoud, who like most other immigrants exist in a No Man’s Land. Unable to exist in their own country, yet unable to make a life in their adopted country, the movie wonderfully showcases the conflict of values through Massoud and his family.
Massoud’s story is that shared by countless immigrants in US, whose stories generally do not make it to the media. But in fact the problem runs much deeper. Massoud is willing to accept that life has changed, and one must move on, but his wife still dreams of the good old days they had in Iran. When his wife is reluctant to move, he tells her
Perhaps you did not come here to live like a Gypsy, but I did not come here to work like an Arab… to be treated like an Arab. For four years we have lived a life we could not afford and spent almost everything to marry Soraya with a good family. This apartment alone has cost us over one hundred forty thousand dollars in rent. And what of Esmail’s university education? Soon we *will* have nothing… And then you will see what it is like to walk in the shoes of the Gypsies… So… Beginning tomorrow you will begin packing, and there’s no more to discuss. Mrs. Behrani, do not open your lips.
The reference to the extravagant wedding, and the obsession with the status and prestige thing, reflects the problems faced by many Asian immigrant communities, and that includes even the Indian community.
Also the movie showcases the fact, that there will always be a wide gap between the Asian and local American community, when Massoud castigates the Americans.
Do you understand? Do not feel bad. Americans they do not deserve what they have. They have the eyes of small children who are forever looking for the next source of distraction, entertainment, sweet taste in the mouth. We are not like them. We know rich opportunities when we see them and do not throw away God’s blessing.
Also director Perelman, gives a realistic depiction of the Iranian community in the US, their prejudices, their way of living. The detailing is near perfect, right down to the use of terms like baba jan, joon am, nazr, Khoda. The scene where Kathy threatens to go to court, and Nadireh, misinterprets it as meaning they would be killed and break down, shows how the communication barrier can be a huge problem.
Kathy is a different case, her problems are due to her own irresponsibility. As she says
I miss my dad. He worked really hard for that house… It took him… thirty years to pay it off. And it took me eight months to fuck it up!
Abandoned by her husband, she gets into an affair with a married cop. Neither her brother nor her mother are willing to help her out, having given up on her. Lonely, broken and depressed, the home is the only reason for her living.
Perelman’s success lies not just in the depth of characterization, but also it’s soulful and emotional approach. After a long time, i saw a Hollywood movie, where Asian Muslim immigrants are not caricaturized. And the best part is that he treats both characters with empathy. We feel sympathetic for both Kathy and Massoud. Both of them seem equally justified in their desire for the home.
The scenes between Massoud and Kathy are some of the best scenes in the movie. Also poignant is the scene, where Massoud and his family try to revive Kathy after she attempts suicide, and Lester mistakes them for assaulting her. And the climax scene, where the cops mistakenly shoot Esmail.
The movie also works on solid performances from its two main leads. Ben Kingsley is fabulous as Massoud, giving one of the best performances of his life. As the immigrant struggling to live the American Dream, he moves you with a portrayal that is honest and sincere to the core. Especially in the scene where he breaks down, after his son is shot dead, and begs God to save his son, would move any one to tears.
Complementing Ben, Jennifer Connely, turns in another superlative performance as Kathy. As an abandoned, insecure, neurotic woman,fighting for a home, she turns in a splendid performance. She so wonderfully expresses the pain, that you end up actually empathizing for her.
Iranian born actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, is brilliant again as Nadireh, especially in the scene, where she is scared, that her family might be shot dead. Jonathan Ahdout also gives a good performance as Massoud’s teenage son Esmail. In fact both Shohreh and Jonathan, appeared in the hit TV series 24. Ron Eldard as Kathy’s lover is however pretty stiff.