The House of Sand and Fog

Hollywood rarely releases noir films at Christmastime, so the debut of The House of Sand and Fog on December 19 suggests that Dreamworks expects the lead actors or actresses, if not the picture itself, to qualify for one or more Academy Awards. Indeed, the drama is intense, and tragedy obviously awaits filmviewers when in the opening scene a Fire Department rescue van drives away from a house, and a sad Kathy Nicolo (played by Jennifer Connelly) responds to a question from a police officer that the house is not hers. The rest of the story is a flashback, portraying how different cultures collide to produce tragedy. Abandoned by her husband eight months earlier, Kathy is a housecleaner who is barely able to feed herself, but at least she owns her house, which she inherited from her father. She is so distraught about being rejected by her husband, who drifted away when she insisted on having children, that she refuses to answer her mail. Several unopened letters would have informed her that nonpayment of a $500 county business tax would result in a tax lien on her house followed by a foreclosure sale so that the county could collect. But one morning a knock at the door awakens her to the reality that she must vacate the premises for a forthcoming auction of her house, now county property. Lester Burdon (played by Ron Eldard), a very pleasant police officer, takes pity on her, helps her to pack up and place her possessions in a storage locker, and persists in checking up on her through dates that indicate more than a professional interest in her plight. Meanwhile, Massoud Amir Behrani (played by Ben Kingsley), a former colonel in Iran under the Shah, spots an advertisement about the auction. One day he explains to his wife Nadi (played by Shoheh Aghdashloo) and fourteen-year-old son Esmael (played by Jonathan Andout) that they are to move out of an expensive San Francisco apartment to live in a modest house down the Peninsula (the location is Carpinteria) close to the beach, at a location often enveloped in fog, with excellent prospects for reselling at a profit. But Kathy is obsessed with the goal of moving back into the house, which was foreclosed on a fluke, as she owed no business tax in the first place. She sees a lawyer, tries to make a direct plea to mother and father Behrani, and ultimately accepts the aid of Lester, who tries to bully and humiliate the proud colonel and his family into relinquishing ownership. As a study of the customs and values of Iranian Americans, The House of Sand and Fog should definitely earn an award for promoting cross-cultural awareness. Indeed, Behrani astutely remarks that Americans are just out for fun in life whereas clever immigrants can seize opportunities and accumulate capital honestly. But Behrani fails to grasp the determination of a woman who experiences no fun in losing the house in which she grew up and the desire of his pubescent son to defend his manhood. Based on the novel by Andre Dubus III and directed by Vadim Perelman, the film ends with tragedy for all the principal characters, for whom a possible compromise comes too late. What many filmviewers may miss is that the plot, minus the tragic ending, can be seen as a paradigm of how European and later American settlers used pieces of paper to dispossess the native peoples of North America, Mexicans in the Southwest, and Native Hawaiians of their land. The plot in the Australian film The Castle (1999) makes that very point more sensitively, with a very different ending. MH

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