Officer: Are you Kathy Nicolo?
Officer: Is this your house?
What are the components that make up a Shakespearean tragedy? Many would answer that such tragedies are a combination of flawed heroes, internal conflict, and chance happenings. When it comes to most films that strive to convey how a small moment can catapult into something catastrophic, the focus tends to be more upon the situation than the actual individuals who endure the hellacious circumstances. It suggests that circumstances are incapable of being controlled and individuals are reactionary to them, opposed to being makers of their own circumstances. 2003’s House of Sand and Fog is a unique film in this regard because it is a film that captures the Shakespearean component of creating one’s own conflict beautifully within its narrative. The events that occur are a result of human interaction, motivations, and actions. Therefore, the characters Shakespeare created, who were strong yet flawed, are very much like the characters of House of Sand and Fog, who are inherently good people but flawed for being led by their motivations and failing to see outside of their own self-prescribed path.
The entirely of the film’s conflict is centered around something seemingly meaningless: a rundown bungalow in the suburbs of San Francisco. Yet this residential structure will be the source of heartbreak and unadulterated fury. The film starts with Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly), a recently separated woman who is socially alienated from her family and suffering from depression. Without warning, she is suddenly (and wrongfully) evicted from her home, a home her deceased father had given to her. This places her in a homeless situation, to which she is too ashamed to confide in her family for help. Then enters Colonel Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley), a former general from Iran, who with his family, had to flee Iran to avoid execution from the dictatorship government. Formerly a wealthy and reputable general, Behrani has been reduced to working construction in the United States, a job he is too shamed to allow his family to be aware of. It is by chance he learns of the auction of Kathy Nicolo’s home in a newspaper and he purchases the home in the hopes of improving its value and reselling it for a profit, all for the sake of providing his son a proper education and providing financial stability for his family. This is where two conflicting ideologies about the bungalow intersect: Kathy is demanding Behrani sell her back her home for the price he paid, which he refuses to do, thus allowing for the circumstances to accelerate and become even more grave than it ever was intended to be.
What House of Sand and Fog is most effective with is how both sides of the situation are offered to the viewer, to which they are given the choice of who to side with, if not with both of them. The film never aims to vilify either of the main characters, but rather represent them as strong-willed individuals, who do not realize the severity of their actions and their pride. This is a complete deviation from the novel (written by Andre Dubus III), which provided a skewed version of events, opposed to offering two sides that equally hold blame. Dubus’ novel strived to convey the ramification of pride, with Behrani’s firm stance against Kathy instigating the culmination of events. However, while Vadim Perelman’s direction and script places the blame on both main characters, he also aimed to humanize them both as well. As a result, the film showcases both characters as victims and deviates from the right versus wrong mentality of the novel. What the film desperately needed, that the novel lacked, was the concept that normal people can be placed in extraordinary situations just for fighting for what they believe to be their right. Whether their motivation is justified is up to the viewer, but the film doesn’t aim to imply to viewers who is the more “worthy” of possessing ownership of the bungalow.
What the film ultimately achieves is representing the notion of the American dream being fractured and unattainable. For Behrani, it is about providing for his family in an environment that is both safe and has a potential future. Yet by having to flee his country, he is reduced to a blue-collar existence and is associated more by his ethnicity than his background and military experience. “You’re a long way from home,” he is told by a deputy (who has been sleeping with Kathy) who aims to frighten Behrani. “I am home,” he responds. “I am a United States citizen.” Yet this doesn’t stop the deputy from threatening Behrani with the possibility of being deported. Even with Kathy, she doesn’t initially see Behrani as another American, but as a foreign antagonist. Rather than acknowledging that her anger should be directed at the county that wrongfully evicted her, she instead chooses to identify Behrani as a thief and screams to prospective buyers that he is “trying to sell them a stolen house.”
Even in the context of his own culture, Behrani is left with the tragic reality that he must represent himself as a certain type of individual in order to be accepted. There is an expectation of him, especially in the context of being able to marry his daughter to a prestigious family, that he is well-off and continues to bring honor to his family. If it were revealed that he were a blue-collar individual, he and his family would be treated as social outcasts. There is one particular scene that reinforces this when his daughter and her new family come to visit Behrani at the bungalow and immediately they scrutinize the residence, to which Behrani tells his daughter the house is an “investment.” His daughter then immediately turns to her new in-laws and tells them, almost reassuringly, that the bungalow is an investment, to which they all relax about Behrani’s current residence. While risking being ostracized by his own culture and being minimized by the American culture, it is no question as to why Behrani has such convictions about maintaining possession of the residence. He wanted to use it as a stepping stone for a better future, one that doesn’t continually challenge his and his family’s existence.
With Kathy’s character, her plight isn’t as dense as Behrani’s, but the film aims to show that she too is a victim of society. She is an individual who is emotionally isolated and has never truly had someone to depend upon. The film begins with the imagery of Kathy seemingly sleeping next to her husband when the phone rings and Kathy has to endure a call from her mother who demeans both Kathy and her husband. It is only after Kathy hangs up the phone that we see that not only Kathy is alone, but she is ashamed to even bring up the truth with her family. This implies to the viewer that Kathy’s family sees her as a weak and ineffectual person. To them, she is someone who has no ambition or any redeemable qualities. This answers for why Kathy is a detached woman. She is emotionally devastated before the film’s conflict even begins. The circumstance regarding the bungalow only exasperates her circumstances. This is precisely why Kathy begins to rely on the deputy she begins a romantic fling with, knowing that he is a married man. She is so desperate to be cared for by someone, anyone, that she is willing to endure being “the other woman.”
With Kathy, her ultimate flaw is her passivity regarding her own life. She believed if she stayed away from others, avoided the disappointment others continually threw at her, that she would be able to live a life that was somewhat salvageable. Living in the bungalow is tremendously important to her because it is more than a mere home; the bungalow represents the only person who ever truly cared for her, her father. When Kathy tells her deputy boyfriend, “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,” this is openly acknowledging both her father being her sole champion, but also reinforcement that she is the “fuck-up” her family perceives her to be. In many regards like Behrani, Kathy is judged before she is truly understood. This bias can be especially acknowledged when Behrani is speaking to his son about the situation and immediately assumes Kathy lost the house due to not paying her taxes and labels her as a spoiled American. He associates her with his own perception of Americans: “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,” all the while not realizing the true issues Kathy faces, which is familial abandonment.
The tragedy of this film is the concept of innocence lost and the collateral damage that ensues as a result. Like any Shakespearean tragedy, this is an element of comedy that balances the denseness of the scenes. House of Sand and Fog doesn’t use comedy, but instead interjects the true innocence of the film, which is Behrani’s family. Behrani’s wife, Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo, in an extraordinary performance) and his son (Jonathan Ahdout) are characters caught in the middle of the circumstance and have no control. Their lives are entwined with forces outside of their capability of control and they are left with the fear that the worst could happen. Nadi is the picture of innocence within the film, who treats Kathy with dignity and respect upon first meeting her and maintains that respect even after she is aware of who Kathy is. To Nadi, she has experienced so much loss in her life and she simply wants to hold onto a single form of happiness. To her, her happiness is in the form of her children and being sure they are safe. Adding further to the innocence of Nadi is the reality that she is a stranger in a strange land. Her home of Iran has been stripped away from her, which in many regards puts her in the same context as Kathy. Also like Kathy, the bungalow has become a sort of sanctuary for Nadi, who immediately tells Behrani when she first steps inside and sees the backyard, “It is like our garden in Isfahan.” Her body language, especially in her eyes, at this moment suggest Nadi has found a sort of peace within her new home by having something that is like her former home. The ultimate tragedy of this film is that this innocence and sense of hope will be challenged and taken away.
House of Sand and Fog is a masterpiece for two reasons: First, this is a story of how innocence can be stripped away so easily by something that is seemingly meaningless. The manner in which this film represents such a scenario can only be described as a modern Shakespearean tragedy, in which nobody wins by the film’s conclusion. The film seemingly functions as a cautionary tale of what happens when someone allows their ambition and determination to blind themselves from the reality of their circumstances. Second, the film leaves it upon the viewer to decide who is to blame of the circumstances that occur. Rather than create a protagonist versus antagonist scenario, the film aims to portray both characters as victims of society, who are both forced to resort to desperate methods to attain the happiness they believe they deserve. By the film’s conclusion the question is then asked: Was either of their efforts worth it?
Academy Award Nominations (2004):
Best Actor in a Leading Role – Ben Kingsley
Best Actress in a Supporting Role – Shohreh Aghdashloo
Best Music, Original Score – James Horner