House of Sand and Fog

Kathy Nicolo (Connelly) has had a very bad year, losing her father by death and her husband by divorce. A house cleaner by trade who often can barely get herself out of bed each morning, Kathy is still concerned with how she appears to her family, who are still unaware of any change in her matrimonial status. All she has left in her life is the Bay Area seaside bungalow her father left upon his passing. When she ignores a number of correspondences from the local tax board, Kathy loses her house over a meager $500 bill, evicted the day before her home is to be auctioned off, finding herself living in a shabby motel room across the street from the storage facility which holds her belongings.

Massoud Behrani (Kingsley) also is concerned with how he appears to the people around him. A highly influential Colonel in the Iranian Air Force during the Shah’s rule, Massoud has been reduced to working two menial jobs to help support their facade of prosperity to their tightly-knit community, noting each penny spent in his ledger, down to the occasional candy bar. When Massoud finds a listing for an auction of a seaside bungalow much like the one his family resided at on the shores of the Caspian Sea, he makes his move to return his family to the opulence they once knew.

Wasting no time, Massoud moves his family into their new home and starts to make changes to the home, adding a rooftop deck. Desperate to get her house back and feeling railroaded by an impassionate legal system, Kathy begins to park across the street and observe the strangers who she feels have personally stolen her property. When Kathy witnesses what she feels is a desecration of her home, she first confronts the construction workers, then Massoud’s wife Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo), who barely understands English. Unable to get satisfaction by conventional means, Kathy turns to Deputy Sherriff Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard), the officer who helped evict her and has subsequently become emotionally attached to her. Burdon, who was already on the verge of leaving his wife and two children before Kathy entered his life, takes an uncommon passion in Kathy’s case, risking his career in an attempt to scare Massoud into selling the house back to the county. But Massoud, who has learned the property is worth much more than anticipated, refuses to sell for less than full market value, which only further fuels Kathy’s despair.

The power of “House of Sand and Fog” comes from how the audience can both sympathize with Kathy’s plight and respect Massoud’s steadfast resolve, while seeing the faults in both character’s positions. Finding that imprecise middle ground between empathy and derision on both sides of a conflict is rare in cinema today, which puts co-scenarist, co-producer and director Perelman at the top of the list of today’s best filmmakers. Every blow in the battle between Kathy and Massoud hits hard, as their pain comes not from hatred but from love, and Perelman’s unwillingness to compromise either character’s pain will keep audiences in contemplation long after this journey has ended.

That Jennifer Connelly has become one of the preeminent actors in film should come as little surprise to those who have followed her career through the myriad of missteps of her early career (and the recent abomination of “Hulk”). But even those who admired her work in “Waking The Dead” and “Requiem For A Dream,” as well as “A Beautiful Mind,” will not be prepared for the devastating power Ms. Connelly brings to her role. It takes an exceptional talent to marshal the wealth of emotional baggage that is Kathy Nicolo, and it is quite possible there is no other peer of Ms. Connelly’s who could have played Kathy as well. Ben Kingsley, whose talent has never been in question, has found the third great character of his career, alongside Mohandas K. Gandhi and Don Logan. One can accept the solemnity that is Col. Massoud Behrani, even through the questions of what his life might have been like in Iran many years before, because of the quiet dignity many film lovers equate with Mr. Kingsley. With another actor, some of Massoud’s actions could be mistakenly for avarice instead of a desire to see his children have better lives than the ones they currently live through no fault of their own. The majority of the supporting cast, including Shohreh Aghdashloo, Jonathan Ahdout (as Massoud’s teenage son Esmail) and Frances Fisher (as Kathy’s public defender), are equal to the stars, and deserve special attention. However, the one weak link is the semi-miscasting of Ron Eldard as Lester. While Mr. Eldard handles the softer side of Lester admirably, he doesn’t quite have that menacing edge the character requires.

I do not regret a single moment in “House of Sand and Fog” and encourage everyone to see this film, but I know it is a film I will probably never be able to watch again.

Rating: A