The Oscar-nominated film “House of Sand and Fog” typically is described as the story of an immigrant family’s tragic experience of life in the United States. But the film, based on the synonymous book by Andre Dubus III, is equally a fictional account of the pain a house foreclosure inflicted on both a troubled woman who lost her home and a man who believed he could profit from her ill fortune.
Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly) and her brother inherited an ocean-view bungalow in San Francisco from their father. Nicolo, an unemployed recovering addict, loses the home through no fault of her own when a county tax assessor’s error results in a foreclosure auction.
“I miss my dad. He worked really hard for that house. It took him 30 years to pay it off, and it took me only eight months to screw it up,” Nicolo wails.
Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley), his wife Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and his teenaged son Esmail (Johnathan Ahdout) are Iranian immigrants to the United States. Behrani, a former military officer, can’t earn enough income in his new country to support his family. He believes Nicolo’s bungalow is his opportunity to buy cheap, sell high and extract his family from their situation. He buys the house from the county, renovates it, advertises it for sale by owner and intends to pocket quadruple the amount he paid to buy it. The profit represents his escape from menial labor, another home on the sea for himself and his wife, and a college education for his son.
“Things are not as they appear. It is a matter of necessity for me and my family,” he says.
The film is painful and depressing. It contains some very unsettling scenes in which Nicolo’s rogue policeman boyfriend threatens and kidnaps the Behrani family and a very shocking and disturbing ending.
Setting aside the immigrant experience, it is the house of sand and fog itself and Nicolo’s and Behrani’s struggle to keep it that are central to the plot and the meaning of the story. The sand and fog are both the physical earth and air around the house and the psychological whirlwind of dust and mist that blind the characters to each other’s losses and desperation. The house is everyone’s last hope.
One homeowner’s loss is often another’s gain on the balance sheet of real estate assets. But in this story one homeowner’s loss becomes another’s ultimate disaster.
“A conflict over a small rundown bungalow spirals into a clash of cultures that propels everyone involved towards an inescapable, and ultimately heartbreaking climax,” a story synopsis on the movie’s Web site states.
Is it right and proper to profit from someone else’s misery? Freedom, free markets and the American Dream suggest it is. This story insists otherwise. But then, it’s just a movie, right?
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