02 January 2004

Acclaimed Hollywood Film Focuses on Iranian-American Family

Iranian-American actress wins New York Film Critics Circle award

By Steve Holgate
Washington File Special Correspondent

Washington -- "The moonlight floods the whole sky, from horizon to horizon. How much it can fill your room depends on the size of its windows." For the noted Iranian actress, Shoreh Aghdashloo, this quote from Rumi sums up the themes of "House of Sand and Fog," the acclaimed new Hollywood drama which has brought renewed attention to the Iranian-American experience in the Untied States, and brought to Ms. Aghdashloo the greatest critical success of her long career.

The film, for which Ms. Aghdashloo has already won the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Supporting Actress of 2003, has put at its center a fictional Iranian-American family, struggling to achieve the American dream while remaining faithful to their Iranian culture and heritage.

The challenge of the immigrant experience and the tragedy of seemingly incompatible dreams lie at the heart of "House of Sand and Fog." "Stunningly powerful," "clearly superb" and "the kind of sweeping social realism seldom seen in Hollywood movies" are a few of the comments from film reviewers around the country. The noted critic and film authority, Leonard Maltin, has said that "there is not a false note or wasted movement" in the film.

"House of Sand and Fog," based on the novel by Andre Dubus III, concerns an Iranian-American family, the Behranis, locked in a legal battle with a young Californian woman over legal of a modest house near the beach. For both the Behranis and the woman, the house represents unrealized dreams. The Behranis, especially the father, a former colonel in the Iranian air force, see the house as a last chance to regain the social position they had in Iran. For the young woman, the house, bequeathed to her by her father, represents her former life, not the current one of drug abuse, a failed marriage, and poverty. Neither of them is willing to compromise. Neither understands the other. The consequences are tragic.

To Ms. Aghdashloo, who plays the colonel's wife, this lack of understanding is the heart of the film. Her conflicted yet kind-hearted character almost serves as a bridge between the two.

In a recent interview she said, "I believe the real tragedy lies in the assumptions" that the characters make about each other, based often on cultural stereotype and ignorance. "This is the real tragedy," she says, "making assumptions rather than asking simple questions. This is what happens when we don't know each other."

Over the telephone her voice is soft, with all the warmth and strength of the character she plays. "What I would like the audience to take home with them," she says, "is that the world is getting smaller and smaller. And gradually we have to live side by side. The only way to live in peace is to get to know one another."

She again quotes Rumi, "Beyond the notion of right and wrong there is a garden. Would you like to meet me there?"

If the Behranis are not shown as saints, they are portrayed sympathetically, with strong and believable virtues as well as weaknesses. The father, played by the former Oscar winner, Ben Kingsley, is perhaps the most compelling figure in the film, stern, even inflexible at times, but also possessed of great inner strength and dignity, as well as having a compassionate and loving side that is not at first obvious. Ms. Aghdashloo portrays his wife as equally complex; kind and tender, yet still unsettled in America and given to fits of anger that reflect her fears about the future.

It is clear from the opening scenes that the makers of the film understand that the immigrant experience is the experience of America; all groups, all families - even Native Americans - originally came to America from somewhere else. The filmmakers also understand that the experience is not an easy one. Old ways die hard and new ones are hard to understand, much less assimilate. When the immigrants' difficulties are compounded by differences in language, culture and religion, the task of assimilation can become formidable. This fact forms the core of the film.

Trita Parsi, reviewing the movie for the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC), has said the film will "intrigue Iranian-Americans due to its Iranian-American lead characters, its complex portrayal of Iranian culture, and its being one of the first Hollywood productions in which Middle Easterners are depicted as multifaceted individuals."

He adds, "Dubus' and (director Vadim) Perelman's depiction of Iranian-Americans and Iranian culture blend(s) the positive and negative that constitute all cultures." It is, he says, "a step in the right direction for Hollywood."

Ms. Aghdashloo admits to having had some uneasiness about the portrayal of Iranian-Americans in the film. "When I read the book," she says, "I was concerned about how audiences would react" to the film. "But then I saw how this non-Iranian author has observed and absorbed our culture and taken care of all the cultural aspects that are very dear to us. These things are dignity, integrity, and saving face. These are the most important aspects of our culture. The author and the director have masterfully taken care of" these concerns.

She says, "Iranian friends have been very happy" with the movie. A friend has told her that one movie house in Los Angeles has been packed with Iranians who live nearby and who have enjoyed the picture. At the end of one of the showings an elderly Iranian gentleman was heard to say, "It is a masterpiece."

American filmgoers already know Kingsley and fellow former Oscar winner, Jennifer Connelley, who plays the young woman, but for most of them the film is the first chance to see Ms Aghdashloo on screen. She has won critical praise for her previous performances in such films as "Maryam" and "Surviving Paradise" and is known to Iranian audiences for her roles in "The Report" and "Shatranje Bad."

Now Ms. Aghdashloo is receiving her first nationwide notice, and the notice has been exceptional. The New York Post says, "It's Shoreh Aghdashloo ... who gives the year's most searingly unforgettable performance." The New York Times wrote, "The deepest pathos comes from the quietest performance -- Shoreh Aghdashloo." Another critic has said, "Shoreh Aghdashloo is just heartbreaking. An incredible performance." After having received the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress for 2003, journalists have speculated that she may receive an Oscar nomination.

She deflects questions about the praise for her portrayal and returns to the meaning of the quote from Rumi regarding moonlight.

"We're hoping, all of us who worked on the film ... that all the humanitarian messages come through to the audience. But it will depend on the audiences' windows," she said.

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