Jennifer Connely as Kathy Nicolo in House of Sand and Fog (courtesy photo)

How brittle are the bricks with which we try to build our lives

"O ur business is the American Dream" reads the motto of Fannie Mae, the financial institution created to facilitate home ownership. The American Dream, the belief that anyone with sufficient luck, grit, and pluck will succeed in the United States, is the business of much of the literature and cinema produced in this country, from Benjamin Franklin's autobiography to Jim Sheridan's current film, In America. The business goes for broke in House of Sand and Fog, in which a bungalow on a hill becomes the site for irreconcilable claims by disconnected dreamers. Not even Fannie Mae could avert the inevitable, but unpredictable disaster.

"Is this your house?" a policeman asks Kathy Nicolo, in a scene that opens the film and that recurs at its conclusion. House of Sand and Fog tells the story of desires that collide over ownership of a house. Kathy, a recovering alcoholic whose husband left her eight months ago, is evicted from the property her late father purchased more than 30 years before. The action is erroneous, based on Kathy's failure to pay taxes she in fact never owed, but before her rights can be restored, the house is sold at auction to an Iranian immigrant family, the Behranis. After living in it for a few months, they intend to resell the property for four times the bargain price they paid: $45,000.

House of Sand and Fog
Dir. Vadim Perelman; writ. Perelman, based on the novel by Andre Dubus III; feat. Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley, Ron Eldard, Frances Fisher, Kim Dickens, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Jonthan Ahdout (R)
In the superb 1999 novel by Andre Dubus III on which director Vadim Perelman based his screenplay, Kathy is a transplant from Massachusetts who has perched herself on the Pacific Coast in fulfillment of the wettest version of the American Dream - the California one. Like the Behranis, she was an immigrant, but even in the movie version, in which her family has occupied the house for more than three decades, Kathy is soon reduced to transience, sleeping in her Bonneville and spying on the strangers who have appropriated her bedroom. "They're already more at home there than I ever was," she says of the Iranian invaders.

Massoud Amir Behrani was once a formidable figure in his native country, an intimate of the shah, whose overthrow forced Behrani into exile and adversity. As played by the inimitable Ben Kingsley, he is a man of impregnable dignity who, mindful of his former rank in the Iranian Air Force, insists on being addressed as "Colonel." Fiercely proud of his culture and his family, he sustains their façade of elegant affluence by secretly laboring at two menial jobs: a highway work crew and a convenience store. After buying the house whose resale he hopes will send his son to college, the Colonel rejoices: "Today God has kissed our eyes." He mistakes a cut for a kiss.

House of Sand and Fog tells the story of desires that collide over ownership of a house. (courtesy photo)

Jennifer Connelly's kissable, perfect white teeth make it hard to forget that another Oscar-winning movie star is now, like Nicole Kidman in The Human Stain, playing a woeful woman reduced to cleaning others' houses. Connelly's Kathy is befriended by the county officer who supervises her eviction. Deputy Sheriff Lester Burdon (Eldard) falls in love with the luckless victim, or at least with the image of himself as knight errant charging into combat to defend a damsel in distress. Abandoning his wife and two children, he, too, becomes homeless. Blinded by a confusion between realty and reality, he mistakes a house for a home. "You're a long way from home," he tells Behrani. "This is my home," replies the Colonel, a naturalized citizen who refuses to be intimidated by a local deputy sheriff.

Perelman - himself an immigrant, from Russia - has, in his novice feature outing, translated Dubus' book into a plangent drama of crosscultural miscommunication. Each of the characters is flawed but sympathetic. Rich in textures of mist and murk, House of Sand and Fog, which itself deserves packed houses, is a graphic reminder of how brittle are the bricks with which we try to build our lives. Our deeds can always be contested. •

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