I’ve been lying about having seen House of Sand and Fog for 18 years. People expect me to have watched it because I’m Persian, and not wanting to disappoint them, I lie.
They’re already disappointed enough when they learn I’m not related to the cast of Shahs of Sunset (though I’ve seen Mike Shouhed at couple of weddings), or don’t have any insider scoop on the Iran nuclear deal and have never heard of their lawyer who is also Persian (and looking for a Persian wife if I happen to know anyone). I don’t want to let them down even more. Because one thing I’m learning, and appreciating, about non-Iranians is how much they try to relate and find common ground. I guess that’s exactly what the purpose of good art is. And House of Sand and Fog, which was a huge Oscars contender in 2004 with three major nominations, is just that.
Now that I’ve seen the film, though, I’m going to lie and say I didn’t. It was truly tragic and I hesitate to discuss it and its themes of immigrant struggles and cultural and sexist biases (from both white and brown characters) that are still relevant today. It felt personal.
It’s a story about Massoud Behrani, a former celebrated colonel of the Iranian army, his wife Nadereh, and their son Esmail starting their lives over in the Bay Area after escaping the Islamic Revolution in Iran. So far, so (relatively) good.
Their lives collide with the depressed, recently jilted Kathy Nicolo, who loses her home to the county due to an unfair eviction. Riddled with daddy issues, she falls in love with Lester, a horny trigger-happy cop who abandons his family to help reclaim her home from the Behranis (who purchased it legally) so he can feel like a man again.
And I don’t need to tell you, but every time an insecure, armed cop is in the picture, things don’t end well. This case is no exception. Half the cast is dead by the end of the film.
By default, I spent a lot of energy judging the film’s portrayal of Iranians and the small cultural details to fuel my righteous indignation at Hollywood’s lack of accurate representation.
I started off righteously indignant. The movie begins with a lavish Persian wedding where the guests are sitting down quietly in their seats, perfectly poised while respectfully listening to a speech. This turned out to be the most unrealistic part of the film, actually. There is no way in hell a bunch of Persians are in a ballroom and they’re sitting in their own assigned seats, not speaking over the host while drunkenly shelling pistachios as they talk shit about the bride’s dress. We come to party. Not to hear a lecture.
But as soon as I heard Behrani’s speech, which went from “the Ayatollahs ripped the soul of our beautiful country” to asking for grandchildren, I was less indignant. This is accurate. Persian dads have no chill whatsoever and will casually bring up the Revolution whenever they feel like it regardless of the occasion or audience. They will be at Coffee Bean like “This coffee is very bitter… just like the tears I shed when the Ayatollah ripped the soul of our beautiful country.” And the barista won’t even flinch because they’re used to it and will just give them extra honey sticks and say “Alright, Mohammad, see you tomorrow.”
Ben Kingsley, who won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Gandhi, totally nailed the overly proud colonel and father who’s fallen from grace and now lives among people who demean him and constantly mispronounce his name. Every scene he was dejected or changed into a suit for no reason just to forge some sense of lost dignity, I felt for my own dad.
Behrani went from being a prestigious member of the Shah’s army to working multiple blue collar jobs in order to maintain their upscale lifestyle just so they can marry off their daughter, Soraya. Pretending you have money so you can marry your kids off well is pretty typical and expected in the Persian community. (My mom broke out the real crystal when my husband was courting me. Now he drinks out of red Solo cups. Ten years and one kid later, the trap is sealed.)
Emmy-Award-winner Shohreh Aghdashloo plays Nadereh Behrani. She is our most treasured Iranian-American actress and I’m glad she’s branching out of playing the sad housewife to portraying the powerful Queen of the Earth on The Expanse (though even on that fictional planet this poor woman is plagued with political unrest that’s affected her family).
Aghdashloo probably has firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to lose everything but try very hard to maintain a semblance of the life you knew back home by making your apartment look like a replica of Marie Antoinette’s chambers. (The film was completely faithful to this thanks to production designer Maia Javan.) Our parents’ generation is obsessed with gaudy, fake antique furniture with gold trimmings meant to be admired and not used. It is the ultimate display of luxury and affluence for your home to look like a knock-off Palace of Versailles. Nadereh’s standards are familiar and dear to my heart.
So when Behrani comes home and announces “I bought for us another bungalow” I knew shit was about to hit the fan. You do not say the word “bungalow” to an Iranian woman who is literally polishing her $8,000 antique tray from the Qajar era. She’s not a bungalow kind of person. A vacation bungalow by the Caspian Sea is cute, but actually living in a bungalow as your home is not. They still have a son they need to marry off.
But she’s a good sport (because she is heavily sedated with anxiety meds) and embraces her husband’s new “investment” (a term Persian men use to justify expensive mistakes) and together they stand on the “widow’s peak” and look over the power lines to what we’re told is an ocean view “just like the Caspian Sea.”
They do this for about half the movie. And good for them for making a sincere attempt to be happy in their new surroundings. Fake it ’til you make it is a true means of survival for most immigrants.
Meanwhile, Kathy gets evicted from the motel and decides to get in her car and drive to what is now the Behrani residence. She goes to confront the construction workers who are in middle of fixing the “investment” and pierces her foot on a very large needle.
Nadereh welcomes her to her home to wash up and dress the wound. Of course she has her cover her foot with a plastic bag. You’re not getting any blood on her floors, bungalow or not. Not today, Satan. And at this point I naively think (or wish), they’re going to bond over being two sad women, displaced from their respective homes, and come to a mutual understanding and resolution.
And maybe that would have been the case had men stayed out of it (and if there wasn’t a major language and cultural barrier). But of course even in reality that is hardly ever the case.
The fight for ownership goes back and forth and there are no clear victims or villains, which is a huge part of why this is such an emotional roller coaster. You can’t root for one without sacrificing the other. They’re all very flawed and blinded by their own self interests. On one hand, Kathy was kicked out unfairly. On the other hand, Behrani bought the house legally and put a lot of time, money and heart into finally making a home in this new country. I like to believe they actually understand the others’ struggles but are simply not willing to give in at their own expense. When Kathy explains her circumstances very politely and how this was all a mistake, Behrani understands and advises her to “sue them for enough money to buy ten homes.” (Seriously, did a Persian dad write this?)
Kathy, abandoned and desperate for someone to look out for her, seeks Lester’s help and attention. And Lester, in need of finding a purpose in life, tries to drive this family out of their home with threats of violence and deportation. He’s not driven by love so much as he is by personal insecurities and the unease of a foreign “Middle Eastern” family (no one is ever sure where they’re from) taking over.
Lester’s wife comes to his work and slaps the shit out of him and he tells Kathy he needs to go home and explain things “better” to his children. Jesus Christ, Lester…
Kathy reaches out to her brother, who also turns out to be useless. Feeling abandoned now by all the men in her life, she gets drunk, goes to the house, and attempts to commit suicide while parked in the driveway. Behrani discovers her and carries her inside to his son’s bedroom where she breaks down and cries. And Nadereh, in true Persian mom fashion, brings her tea. Because there’s nothing Persian tea can’t cure. Stomach aches, needle wounds, suicide attempts. I can’t tell you how many times my dad would make me dip a cotton ball into scorching hot tea and place it over my infected eye. You can get run over by a bus and he’d say “dab some tea on on your broken ribs and sprinkle some turmeric for good measure.”
She attempts suicide again, downing a bottle of pills in the bathtub. Nadereh finds her right in time and saves her. But then her deadbeat cop boyfriend breaks into the house to I guess rescue her and blames the Behranis for her sad state, even though Kathy defends them. “He’s a weak man. He is nothing without his gun,” Behrani says to his son while they’re all locked in the bathroom. “And a scared man is dangerous.” Hashtag fact.
Utterly crushed and scared for his family, Behrani realizes this isn’t worth it and agrees to give the house back, but they’re skeptical (as was I) so Lester follows him to get him to sign the papers under duress. Then Esmail, who I thought was more of a background character, grabs Lester’s gun and points it at him, angry that he keeps mispronouncing his name. Right then I realized how much the children of immigrants actually internalize despite the fact that we’re “assimilated” and better off than our parents. Esmail finally had it with the way his family was being treated. And as some of us know that teenage angst is no joke.
I realized this wasn’t going to end well, but I did not see Esmail getting shot and killed by the police. That shook me to the core. Behrani holding his son’s dead body yelling “I want only my son” over and over again just broke me.
But it gets worse. Behrani goes home and laces his wife’s tea with a whole bunch of her pills so that she dies peacefully and quietly, not ever having known her son was murdered. I felt relieved for her. (The irony is that she was afraid of going back to Iran, convinced they would shoot her family. But little did she know about guns and America.) Then he adorns himself in his old colonel uniform and lays next to his wife and kills himself too.
What did I tell you, no chill whatsoever.
Lester ends up in jail, but that’s a small consolation for the price everyone paid. When Kathy discovers their dead bodies, then cuddles next to them on the bed, it is just so… tragically beautiful. They were all troubled people with no place to settle, just searching for a home–in Kathy’s case a literal house she’s known all her life, in the Behranis’, a new country in which to rebuild their lives.
And if you can’t make it in America, the land of opportunity and new beginnings, where else is left?