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House of Sand and Fog

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
House of Sand and Fog
from Film Forum, 12/23/03

Sir Ben Kingsley (Ghandi, Schindler's List) and his fellow Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind) play two strikingly different characters in a tug-of-war over a valuable piece of real estate in first-time director Vadim Perelman's adaptation of Andre Dubus III's best-selling novel House of Sand and Fog.

The story does not sound like the stuff of an arresting film. But Perelman captures a nerve-wracking, heartbreaking story in one of the year's most accomplished dramas.

Kingsley plays Massoud Amir Behrani, a former associate of the Shah of Iran who moves his family to the United States to rebuild their lives. Unaccustomed to living without great wealth, Behrani works several jobs and watches the classified ads, trying to find a house that will replace the lavish estate they inhabited in their homeland. When he discovers that he can get a bargain by buying property that has been seized by the government, he becomes the owner of a house that has great sentimental value for the woman from whom it was taken.

That woman (Connelly) is Kathy Lazaro, a recovering drug addict and recent divorcee. Arguing that the government had no right to take her house, Lazaro hires a lawyer (Frances Fisher) and fights for her father's homestead. As she slowly realizes that the situation is irresolvable, she descends into self-destructive behavior, including an affair that compromises the marriage of a foolish, irresponsible policeman (Ron Eldard.)

Mainstream critics are praising the film as one of the year's best. But some religious press critics have strong objections.

Movieguide's critic says, "The two major characters who clash in the movie do not become sympathetic until the very end, which makes the predictable ending all the more disappointing. [The film] seems to be a throwback to politically liberal movies from the 1960s where the repressive, 'racist' System with a capital 'S' inexorably leads to human tragedy.

Michael Medved (Crosswalk) says, "The lurid plot and pokey pace combine to run the entire effort off the rails for a conclusion that registers as creepy rather than compelling. No amount of passion and conviction from the cast can carry the heavy-breathing hysteria of the story line."

I believe that these critics are misinterpreting a powerful tale about the wages of sin. Behrani, Lazaro, and the misguided policeman all want something desirable, but each of them is willing to take unethical shortcuts to get it. They want what they want, and they want it their way, without having to demonstrate any responsibility. Selfishness is disguised as generosity. Lust is disguised as compassion. No one looks to a Higher Power for help, consolation, blessing, or perspective. They all take things into their own hands, and they all pay the price. One rash act leads to another, until lives are ruined, and the heart of Behrani's compassionate and caring wife, Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo) is broken. While it is indeed a dark and troubling picture, House of Sand and Fog is one of the year's best films, in that it gives us a horrifying portrayal of what happens when we take up "the pursuit of happiness" recklessly.

It also features Oscar-worthy performances by Sir Ben Kingsley and Shohreh Aghdashloo.

Anne Navarro (Catholic News Service) says, "Perelman's tragic tale reveals with searing emotion the consequences actions—both good and bad—can have on frail human beings. It is moving and poignant, with a brilliant performance by Ben Kingsley. While the film's crushing sadness overwhelms the viewer, leaving one drained, the film's flaws cannot be dismissed."

from Film Forum, 01/22/04

Parks raves that House of Sand and Fog "has a rigor rare in Hollywood dramas. The movie is resolute in its portrayal, never softening the story or its characters for easy sentiment. This leads to a fantastic conclusion, where a simple declaration feels like a hard-won victory."

House of Sand and Fog is also earning raves from Roger Thomas (Ethics Daily). Thomas calls the work of Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley, and Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo "three of the finest performances of this past year. [The movie], as with Changing Lanes before it, has at least two prominent lessons. First, the film is a commentary on contemporary American society where people have lost the ability to listen and care. The other lesson concerns the escalation of unrighteous choices." He adds that House of Sand and Fog and Changing Lanes "will make a fantastic double feature on the inability to empathize—and the sometimes hazardous results of this inability."

from Film Forum, 02/26/04

Ron Reed (The Matthews House Project) calls House of Sand and Fog "a film that sticks with you. It is rich and intricate, and the more you reflect on its specifics, the more its meaning and mysteries present themselves."

He comments on the nightmare that develops as the characters make desperate, misguided choices that set in motion devastating consequences. "It is frightening to think our fates are in the hands of ineluctable natural forces or vengeful gods. When we consider that perhaps our own choices, and the choices of the people around us, are just as inevitably shaped by the darknesses in our hearts, that fear is compounded into real horror—the threat is so close at hand, so undeniable. Some actions will bring destruction, darkness will flow out of us—from our pride and prevarications, from our weakness and addictions, from our disrespect and disregard, from our certainty that we know how things should be and our blind willingness to do all we can to make them so, whatever the cost."