"House of Sand and Fog" - Vadim Perelman (2003)

House of Sand and Fog (2003), the much-praised feature film debut of Vadim Perelman, was based on the acclaimed 1999 novel of the same name by Andre Dubus III that was nominated for the US National Book Award. The story concerns an irreconcilable struggle over the ownership of a California beach house. Although highly melodramatic, the film actually does encompass a rather nuanced and sympathetic view of the two competing groups and avoids obvious bias in the conflict: throughout the film the focalization and sympathetic perspective is almost equally divided between the two competing sides. Since the two sides comprise an upper-class Iranian family and a lower-class American, such narrative balance, along with exceptionally good acting, builds up an expectation as the plot develops of interesting and dramatic social interactions. Unfortunately this promised profundity is never realized. Nevertheless, what is interesting about the film is that it raises issues concerning our sense of justice, which go beyond the traditional simplistic Hollywood moral tale.

At the outset of the film, Kathy Nicolo, the protagonist of one of the “lower-class American” narrative thread, is awakened with the news that the house in which she is living (and in which she grew up) has just been repossessed by the county for nonpayment of a $500 property tax. She is being immediately evicted. Kathy, we gradually learn, works as a cleaner and has been living a disorganized life since her husband left her eight months earlier. The sympathetic deputy sheriff present during the repossession, Lester Burdon, advises Kathy to consult a public defender and offers his support.

The other narrative thread concerns a once-wealthy Iranian family of high standing that has fled the oppressive circumstances in their home country and is struggling to make do in California. The father of the family, Massoud Behrani, was a colonel in the Shah’s army, but now in California he works in two menial jobs – at convenience store and as a civil ditch digger. When he learns that a beach house (Kathy’s) is about to go on public auction, he sees his chance to make a real-estate profit and improve his family’s fortunes.

As the events of this house repossession move forward, the viewer struggles to understand the backstories of the two threads, which would provide crucial information underlying the motivations of the key characters. This material is presumably covered more thoroughly in the novel (which I haven’t read), but it is only fleetingly and scantily alluded to in the film. Figuring out what lies behind these two thread is a challenge that perhaps keeps the viewer’s attention to small details, but it would definitely be helpful to know more about these characters:
  • Kathy is disorganized and disheveled. She neglects opening her mail, and there are suggestions that she may have had alcoholic or drug dependencies (this is apparently more explicit in the novel). What happened with her? Why did her husband abandon her?
  • Lester, a married man, becomes Kathy’s friend and eventually her lover. We understand that his marriage has gone cold, but we don’t really know much about his character. What drives him?
  • It would be particularly useful to shed light on Massoud’s psychological background. His wife at one point accuses him of having made decisions back in Iran that necessitated their flight from the country and the ruination of their life. Is there something in his history that haunts him? I would like to know more.
What we do know is that Kathy is essentially a weak personality who cannot get her life together. She doesn’t understand the basic rules of the game of life, and she apparently frequently goes off the rails and falls into a funk. She is the type of person who needs protection in this cruel world: a truly just society should not take advantage of characters like Kathy. Massoud, on the other hand is the opposite type of personality. He is a strong, vigorous individual who is used to the rule-driven society of the military culture. He is rigorously honest and plays exactly by the rules, taking his lumps when he’s down, but cashing in when he’s ahead. At the public auction he acquires Kathy’s house for a song at approximately a quarter of its market worth, and he anticipates that he can resell the house and thereby lift his family out of poverty and fund his teenage son’s college education.

So relatively early on in the story an interesting conflict has been established between two basically implacable foes. Kathy has lost possession of her house due to a minor oversight, and anyone can see that a clear injustice has been perpetrated against her. We’re on her side: she should have her house restored to her. Even Massoud with his own financial concerns can see the inherent injustice that has happened to Kathy. On the other hand, Massoud has been playing carefully by the rules – the same even-handed rules that supposedly govern everybody in the universally admired “rule of law” society that operates in America. So we are on Massoud’s side, too. Anyway, Massoud is evidently not going to forego his chance to save his family in this dog-eat-dog competitive society in order to “reward” someone like Kathy whose lack of diligence and sloth is directly responsible for her misfortune.

All of these ruminations would probably be even more interesting if we could be privy to some of the thinking, perhaps via internal monologues, on the part of Massoud and get inside his character. But this we cannot do, as the film presents him as an opaque and stubbornly closed personality. Massoud rules his family like a military platoon and provides no explanations for his decisions (it seems that his wife doesn’t even know that he is employed at menial jobs: he leaves for work each day in a business suit and makes himself out to be an executive for Boeing).

This is the interesting narrative road, the two competing forms of justice, that was not taken by Perelman and his team. What we could have had in the film was the struggle in Massoud’s mind between his intuitive sense of justice (according to which Kathy’s case would be viewed sympathetically) and his rule-driven sense of justice that would weigh more favorably on his own side. It would have been interesting to see this social and judicial evaluation undertaken by a newcomer to the United States who might be expected, at least on reflection, to see the American system with the external eye of a more detach and objective observer.

At the same time there is another interesting angle here: the sense of justice that might be considered from the perspective of Kathy’s lover, Lester. He is, after all, a man who works within the law-enforcement system, and yet, as an insider, he knows that the rules sometimes need to be bent in order to achieve “true” justice (i.e. following our intuitive sense of what is right) in certain circumstances, such as Kathy’s, where the rules were improperly applied or twisted against her in the first place. In addition there is the conflict in Lester’s own personal life between the conventional rules of marital fidelity and his personal realization that Kathy is his true soul-mate and the person with whom he has more natural affinities. Again it is a conflict between one’s intuitive and subjective sense of justice (which, of course, can sometimes be clouded by emotion) and the rigid application of externally defined rules that cannot work out perfectly in all contexts.

Still another interesting perspective to highlight might have been the position of Massoud’s wife, Nadi. Not knowing anything about the financial circumstances or conflict, Nadi treats Kathy (when she suffers an injury at the beach house), who is a stranger to her, with characteristic Persian graciousness and compassion, a culturally ingrained behaviour characteristic of Iranian society. Her role, as another and contrasting outside of observer of American society, might have been given more examination.

So there were four significant characters to follow: Massoud, Lester, Nadi, and Kathy – with Kathy being perhaps the least interesting one to “get inside of”, because the injustice done to her is so obvious. We don’t have to wonder much about her mental state, because we readily understand it. But of the four, the film spends a great amount of screen time, maybe too much, on Kathy and not enough on the other three. This was probably due to the presence of the very beautiful and talented actress Jennifer Connelly, as Kathy. Connelly does well, but it might conceivably have been better for the film narrative to have someone less attractive in the role. The performances of all four of these characters, by the way, are excellent. Besides Connelly, Ben Kingsley gave an energetic rendering of Massoud’s character, and Ron Eldard, for the most part, was effective as a measured and reflective Lester. The role of Nadi, which I feel would have liked to see given more weight in the plot, was sensitively played by Shohreh Aghdashloo, a distinguished Iranian actress who, like the character she played, was forced to flee the Iranian social violence in 1979 and start a new life overseas.

But even without our full immersion into Massoud’s, and Lester’‘s moral struggles, we still have a potentially interesting plot situation. The viewer is made to feel some sympathy for all sides, and yet all sides are uncompromising and inexorably headed for a conflict that will be disastrous to at least one of them. How will this all be resolved?

Unfortunately, with the viewer’s sense of suspense built up by this relentless buildup of tension, the narrative quixotically heads south and loses its way. Instead of moving towards some kind of resolution to the conflict, it seems that utter hopelessness takes over as a superficial plot remedy and defeats them all. Without warning, Kathy attempts suicide, twice. And at the end of the film, after Lester’s mysteriously belligerent intervention leads to the accidental death of Massoud’s son, Massoud poisons his wife and then commits suicide, himself. Thus everything turns out to be a manufactured tragedy of monumental proportions, without anything even close to proper motivations or seeding. Why? There is no real resolution -- just submission, defeat, and death. It is enormously sad, but the issues have been abandoned. House of Sand and Fog is an interesting film, but it could have been better.
★★½

"The Song of Sparrows" - Majid Majidi (2008)

With a string of contemplative, existentialist dramas about modern life, Majid Majidi has established himself as one of the foremost filmmakers anywhere. Although his films are set in contemporary Iran, and for that reason attract a certain amount of socio-political attention, the works reflect universal themes that could apply in any setting. His latest film, The Song of Sparrows (Avaze Gonjeshk-ha, 2008) continues this pattern, following on from Father (Pedar, 1996), Children of Heaven (Bacheha-ye-Aseman, 1997), The Color of Paradise” (Rang-e Khoda, 1999), Baran (2001), and The Willow Tree (Beed-e Majnoon ,2005).

In most of Majidi’s films, the protagonist, always a male, struggles through a life-changing experience that ostensibly ends in a crushing defeat. But at the conclusions of these films, the effect of the struggle has (usually) elevated the protagonist to a higher level of understanding about the world and about human relations. This is not a theoretical understanding, but something else – an intuitive sensitivity to interactive experience that goes beyond the verbal. And this is what connects Majidi’s films to Sufism and other extramundane spiritual practices.
This is not to suggest that Majidi’s characters are particularly philosophical. They are typically drawn from the working classes and have, for the most part, not had a higher education. In this connection, though, one must make note of the fact that the popular culture of Iran permeating all social levels is generally more reflective about destiny and spiritual matters than those of Western societies.

The story concerns the experiences of Karim, a middle-aged family man who lives in a village outside of Tehran, where he is initially seen working at his job on an ostrich farm. After a momentary oversight causes him to lose his job at the farm, Karim’s struggles to earn a living by other means take him to another world altogether – the hectic and confusing opportunities of the Tehran metropolis. There he finds himself faced with the conflicting moral dilemmas of modern life. Although this basic story theme has been presented countless times, the organic development of the story, with its compelling visual metaphors, has a slow, understated build-up that make it effective.

The narrative of The Song of Sparrows is filled with many little incidents and episodes, but it traces through roughly four main sections.
1. Karim at the Ostrich Farm (22 minutes).
The film opens with striking pictures of ostriches and then shows us Karim’s energetic attendance to their feeding and to collecting their huge eggs. His work is interrupted with news that Haniyeh, his teenage daughter back in the village, has lost her hearing aid in the local irrigation reservoir. He rushes back to retrieve this irreplaceably expensive item, but when recovered it turns out to be broken. Back at the ostrich ranch, Karim is momentarily distracted by the way some of his work crew are mishandling the birds, which gives one of the ostriches the opportunity to escape from its pen and head out over the barren landscape. Karim’s strenuous efforts to find the bird come to naught, and when the boss returns, Karim learns that he has been sacked. This section has served to introduce Karim and his family (a wife and three children) and its relatively modest circumstances; it ends with the disruptive event of Karim’s loss of employment. At this point three disastrous losses have occurred for Karim: the loss of his daughter’s hearing aid, the loss of the ostrich, and the loss of his job. How is the unskilled Karim going to feed his family and replace his daughter’s expensive hearing aid?

2. Karim Goes to the City (22 minutes) . Undaunted by the crisis, Karim rides his motorbike to the crowded streets of Tehran to see if the hearing aid can be repaired. After learning from a doctor that he will somehow have to buy a prohibitively expensive new one, he returns to mount his motorbike and is, just at that moment, mistakenly taken by a hurried businessman to be a private taxi operator. These private taxis are technically illegal in Iran, but they are tolerated, because this is the only practical way to move the vast urban population about the crowded the streets of the city. Soon Karim realizes that he can make some money this way, and he begins pursuing this line of work in earnest. The businessmen that he subsequently picks up are all rushing about in the congested Tehran rat race, often making deals with their mobile phones as they ride on the back of his bike. Karim also discovers from overhearing the mobile phone conversations that these businessmen are often pretending to be what they are not – one of them even assures his listener insistently, “I’m in Mashhad” (another city several hundred miles east of Tehran).

Karim also observes that what is considered junk in Tehran would have some value back in his village. He picks up a tossed-out TV aerial and takes it back home to enhance his own TV reception. Soon he starts taking home other items to see if he can repair them and add to his homestead. While Karim is busy entering the hurly-burly world of capitalism, hoping to enrich himself, he learns that his son, Hussein (who is maybe 11-years-old) is similarly busy with his own dreams of enrichment. He and his boyfriends have somehow come up with the inane idea that they can become millionaires if they can grow and sell thousands of goldfish in the village water reservoir. So they are all working diligently to do what seems impossible: clean all the mud out of the reservoir so that it can be fit for their goldfish farm. To Karim this is crazy, and he scolds his son for wasting his time. At this point in the story Karim’s fortunes are on the upswing, and he is hopeful. He has decided to make his living as a motorbike taxi driver and junk repair man, and he tells his wife that he can make more money this way than by getting an ordinary unskilled worker’s job. He gives his friend, Ramezan, an offering to place at the shrine in Mashhad in the hopes that his life will continue to improve.

3. Karim’s Work in the City (25 minutes).
Having already stumbled into the job of a cycle taxi driver and junk repairman, Karim stumbles into another lucrative operation: that of a goods porter in the city. But Karim’s acquisitiveness is growing, too, and this swings the narrative arc in a downward direction. He uses a fake ID card to join a group of hired cyclists transporting refrigerators. But when his bike stalls during the mission, he loses sight of the group ahead of him and gets lost. He now succumbs to the temptation to sell his cargo refrigerator on the black market and pocket the money for himself. But the chance sighting of some ostriches on a truck somehow strikes a chord with his conscience, and he ultimately returns the refrigerator box to the original warehouse. Nevertheless Karim’s increasing obsession with commercial gain is still dominating his outlook, as is evidenced by his subsequent reluctance to pay a young girl on the road selling smoking aspand (an Iranian custom dating from Zoroastrian times to ward of the “evil eye”) anything more than the minimum amount.

Later while riding on a Tehran motorway, Karim happens to see Haniyeh and Hussein selling flowers, and he loses his temper at their actions that, from his selfish perspective, are making him lose face. In a rage, he abusively smacks poor Haniyeh, and when he returns home and learns that the flower-selling was undertaken to support Hussein’s absurd fish-farming schemes, completely blows his top. But when he storms over to the water reservoir with destructive intent, he is shocked to see that the boys have actually completed their arduous task and have cleaned up the reservoir enough for fish to live in it. Though mollified somewhat, he is still obsessed with his own junk-repair operations, which have now filled the front area of his house. While climbing over a mountain of it to arrange some of the items, he falls and breaks his leg.

4. A Change of Heart. (26 minutes).
With Karim now disabled, he can only watch passively while his wife and children earnestly set about making ends meet by working as farm labourers. After the dog-eat-dog world of competitive commerce in Tehran, his eyes are newly opened to the cooperative and communal style of life in his village. He is touched and starts to see things differently. On a trip to the doctor in Tehran, he is accompanied by the village boys seeking to buy goldfish for their foolish fish-farm scheme. When the boys lose all their fish in an accident and are devastated, Karim smiles benignly at their tragedy and sees the beauty of life in a larger context. At the end of the film he sees a sparrow trapped in his room, and he opens the door to set it free. When his friend Ramezan reports that the wayward ostrich from the ostrich farm has returned, Karim reflects on how he has changed since that original loss, and he lapses into a dream or meditation in which the ostriches appear as splendiferous creatures of God.
There are several significant symbolic themes in the The Song of Sparrows. Ostriches have long been images of iconic importance in Eastern Africa and the Middle East, going back to ancient Egyptian times [1]. Their enormous size as the largest birds and their fierce appearance have undoubtedly been the inspiration of mythical images of winged monsters and deities. The huge size of ostrich eggs connotes the power of renewal and rebirth at springtime and has its own iconic significance. Throughout the film, when Karim sees ostriches or their eggs, he seems to be reminded of something transcendent beyond his own immediate circumstances. These moments of reflection occasioned by ostrich sightings occur in all four acts, notably when he is spurred to return the refrigerator to the warehouse in Act 3. In all these cases, the ostrich seems to suggest the fearful and stirring power of life, but also the power of death.

Sparrows, by contrast, are at the opposite end of the bird spectrum – small and assumed to be individually insignificant. But sparrows also reflect the ever-teeming wonder and vitality of nature. After the village boys have cleaned out the water reservoir, some sparrows have come to nest there. When Karim releases the sparrow from his room at the end, it reflects his renewed sensitivity to the small, daily rhythms of life. If ostriches suggest individuality, sparrows suggest community.

Another symbolic reference is associated with Karim’s observation of his son’s and companions’ foolish obsession with making a fortune from a goldfish farm. This is a symbolic microcosm of God looking down at his (and our) own foibles. Karim’s mad quest to make money and forget about the important things of life was, from the celestial perspective, just as trivial as the boys’ schemes. After his accident in the last part of the film, Karim begins to view the boys’ activities with a benign tolerance. He sees their narrow-minded struggles to become “millionaires” with a loving and caring benevolence, just as we might hope God might see our own error-filled ways.

Majid Majidi is sometimes classed with his countrymen, Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi as a neorealist filmmaker. Although they all tend to concentrate focalization on a single main character, there are significant differences in terms of their respective visual narrative styles. Kiarostami tends to have long and static camera takes, that keep the viewer relatively uninvolved with the action. Even when Kiarostami’s camera is relatively in close, it seems to occupy an emotionally neutral position. Thus his mise-en-scene has an overall distancing effect on the viewer. Majidi, in contrast, features a fluid, dynamic visual style that keeps the viewer involved as if it were an unseen participant in the action. His style entails carefully crafted action cuts and well-motivated point-of-view shots throughout – a remarkable achievement in view of the natural, often urban, settings and the use of a mostly unprofessional cast. Panahi occupies something of a middle position between Kiarostami and Majidi, with relatively long camera takes, but very adroitly performed camera movements that maintain more of a narrative involvement and are ultimately less-distancing than Kiarostami’s cinematography. As a consequence of Majidi’s well-motivated cinematography and fluid editing, the viewer of his films has a much greater emotional involvement with the narrative flow. In addition, while Kiarostami’s principal characters are frequently somewhat cut off from (and hence more reflective about) their social contexts, Majidi’s characters are more immersed in their social environments. But even with this contextual immersion in Majidi’s films, there are always moments when the principal character has an epiphany, a flash of awareness, and this experience is intuitively shared by the viewer. Incidentally, this is the first Majidi film (in my recollection) that does not end with a shot overlooking water.

Although Majidi occasionally employs actors with professional experience, only the lead actor in The Song of Sparrows had professional acting experience, and that was Mohammad Amir Naji (aka Reza Naji), who was an earlier non-professional discovery of Majidi’s and had appeared in Children of Heaven (Bacheha-ye-Aseman, 1997), Baran (2001), and The Willow Tree (Beed-e Majnoon, 2005). In all of those earlier performances, Naji, although only a supporting actor, was a magnetic and compelling presence who added crucial energy to the narrative. In The Song of Sparrows, Naji is thrust to centre stage, as Karim, and he occupies an extraordinary amount of screen time. For his efforts on this occasion, Naji won the “Silver Bear” at the Berlin Film Festival, and “Best Performance by an Actor” at the 2008 Asia Pacific Screen Awards. Despite this recognition and my great appreciation for his earlier performances, I found Naji’s performance in The Song of Sparrows to represent the one serious weakness of the film.

Naji’s performance here is so over-the-top and strained that it borders on music hall theatrics. There is too much grimacing and melodramatic posturing, and it runs against the naturalistic setting that has been painstakingly established with the film and its other performers. In addition Naji’s face has been cosmetically altered with a considerably elongated nose, a different jaw line, and a strange set of teeth. This gives him an almost clownish appearance and suggests that some of the scenes are played for laughs. Although such effects can lighten the tone, they also keep the viewer from sympathising with Karim’s situation and moral struggles. The net effect is that Naji’s performance plays against the strengths of Majidi’s film and diminishes its effectiveness, thereby keeping the film from reaching the level of Majidi’s best work.

In The Song of Sparrows the otherworldly references in the film are enhanced by the occasional and nonintrusive background music of Hossein Alizadeh, a preeminent Iranian tar musician and composer of music for classical instruments. This gives a melancholic feeling to the story, and at the end, a sense of calm and resignation at the infinite complexity of existence. Does this suggest passivity and fatalism, that one should always be resigned to one’s humble circumstances? Let us hope not. One can’t help but admire the never-say-die fortitude and belief-in-himself of Karim, as he is viewed in the earlier stages of the film. Although something of a rube from the countryside, Karim is industrious and energetic, always looking for new opportunities. What we should take from this story is not a recommendation for passivity, but the conviction that Karim's indomitable energy can only be enriched by a broader appreciation of the cooperative harmony of nature and humanity. Overall, though, The Song of Sparrows is another impressive installment in Majidi’s continuing existential exploration of the higher and more spiritual levels of human experience.
★★★

Notes:
  1. “Ostrich Eggs and Peacock Feathers: Sacred Objects as Cultural Exchange between Christianity and Islam”, by Nile Green, Al-Masaq, Volume 18, Issue 1 March 2006 , pp. 27 - 66.