By Admin | February 5, 2004

Two pictures certain to figure in the upcoming Oscar race offer complex, emotionally wrenching examinations of the modern immigrant experience. Both In America and House of Sand and Fog pivot on quests for fresh beginnings on the part of families fleeing unfortunate reversals in their native land. Both feature insightful character studies, fine writing and superb direction. On the surface, the pictures sound in several key respects like two of a kind but, interestingly, they couldn’t be less alike.

As a matter of fact, they’re mirror images of one another. Where In America is the semiautobiographical work of a veteran filmmaker, for example, House of Sand and Fog adapts the bestselling 1999 novel by Andre Dubus III and marks director Vadim Perelman’s feature debut. Ben Kingsley gives the centerpiece performance in the role of a former Iranian colonel forced to make himself scarce when the Shah’s government fell. A proud, imperious figure, his character holds menial jobs in order to hold onto his family’s luxurious lifestyle and illusion of stature. He’s fighting a losing battle, as his bank book makes clear, and is desperate to find a way to improve his fortunes.

Jennifer Connelly costars as a young woman suspended between nightmares, emerging from the twin misfortunes of a failed marriage and drug addiction but still too bleary-eyed to make out the tragedy directly in her path. Taking refuge in the run-down oceanside bungalow left to her by her father, she sleeps away her days, lets the dishes pile up and, most significantly, leaves her mail unopened.

She is genuinely surprised therefore when authorities knock on her door one day to inform her that she’s been evicted for nonpayment of taxes and has only moments to pack and vacate. Numerous notices and warnings, we later learn, lie unread, buried in the stack of letters she leaves behind.

The whole thing is a bureaucratic blunder-she never really owed the taxes in question-but, before her legal aid lawyer can sort the error out, the city sells the house at auction for a fraction of its value leaving Connelly homeless, penniless and with a mounting sense of rage. It’s a gift from god from Kingsley’s point of view, though. He purchases the place with the last of his savings confident he’ll be able to sell it at a sizable profit and set his family on the upward trajectory of his American dreams.

Exceptional performances and unexpected twists of plot keep the story from descending into overwrought melodrama as the two characters lock horns in a beachfront deathmatch with Connelly fighting to retain a link to her past and the colonel maneuvering to secure his family’s future. The displaced woman shows up at Kingsley’s door again and again demanding justice only to be rebuffed with less patience on each occasion. At the height of her hysteria, she enlists the help of a police officer (Ron Eldard) who has serious problems of his own and the pair’s attempt to intimidate the home’s new owner produces an outcome which would not seem out of place in Greek tragedy.

Or, it must be said, on the Lifetime Channel. That’s the thing about Perelman’s film. It comes this close to high-toned soap opera in places and yet gets away clean thanks to the elegance of the direction, the power of the cast’s performances and the depth of the script’s themes. By the time the plot has twisted its last grim twist, you will have been put through the wringer and had your buttons pushed. You will also have covered some unusually thoughtful ground.

By the time In America’s credits roll, tragedy has been left behind, grief has been processed and a family is ready to start a new life. The family looking for someplace to start over in House of Sand and Fog is not so lucky. Home is where the heart is for some and where heartache is for others. The saddest truth Perelman’s adaptation has to offer may be the fact that accident and fate play as great a role as character in determining which will come knocking on one’s door.

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