The following is a commentary I wrote several years ago, but its relevance regarding the wounded feminine remains........Having viewed House of Sand and Fog, I don’t know if I am more disturbed by the movie or by the critics’ lack of recognition of what it might be construed to portray psychologically. Hence I think that an important view of this movie is lost. It is hard to disagree with the critics when they point out the film’s many technical flaws; yet, it also hard to not recall the mesmerizing grip the film placed on me and the vividness with which I recall it afterwards. On the surface, the movie is about ownership of a house—the American dream of the immigrant gone awry. Underneath the tug of war regarding home ownership between an Iranian immigrant, a colonel in the fallen Shah’s Air Force, and a ne’er-do-well recovering addict who inherited the house when her father died but who has neglected to attend to tax collection notices (albeit, erroneously billed, she lacks the responsibility to open her mail to right the matter).
This film perceived in other terms might be instead a tragic story of what happens in a faltering patriarchy that does not heed the wounded feminine.
Early in the film we see the young woman Kathy in bed waking up to her mother’s phone call. She responds to her mother’s inquiry about her husband with denial. She avoids the truth and tells her mother he is away on business—again. In fact, he has left her. She, we discover, inherited her father’s house, a find of a beachfront property that is deteriorating in disarray under her “care”. It would seem that she needs to learn how to psychically leave her father’s house and move into her own adulthood. Takeout leftovers, strewn about among other garbage, and unopened mail cluttering the floor by her door indicate that she is still in a hole of despair even if she is not actively abusing drugs or alcohol. She is surrounded by the beauty of nature yet in being so disconnected from it she gains no access to its nurture for her soul.
Note that her own attractiveness seems to enamor some male film critics to the point where they can’t seem to judge her actions impartially. In their critiques, they appear to collude with her. The fact that male critics downplay her responsibility in the tragedy that unfolds seems to me to be “reverse patriarchy” bias. As a woman, I do not find her an endearing character; the Iranian mother Nadi shows her more compassion than I can muster. Kathy has solid choices to make all along the way that would help her out of her hole, but time and again she digs deeper.
When I say this, however, I question how I can confer blame on her for the patriarchy in which she is trapped (my own complex activated, perhaps). Who knows what her family and father issues were before he died? And “patriarchy” is not about men per se. The patriarchal way of life wounds both men and women when it juxtaposes male dominance and authority over women, when it seeks power through might rather than collaboration, when it condones violence and eschews compassion.
The women in this movie—save the legal defense attorney—all seem caught in a patriarchal complex. Kathy, the dry drunk, cannot metaphorically leave her father’s house and grow into her own identity as an adult; and so she is literally evicted. Had she done the psychological work of leaving her father’s house, the tragic circumstances would not have unfolded as they did.
Nadi, the Iranian mother, is subject to the benevolence of her despotic husband. He is caught in his own rigid character structure of how a man “should” be—particularly a man of stature and authority in his home country. It is easy to empathize with his character that seems proud yet having integrity. (I remember my father always keeping his honor and pride intact by wearing his suit jacket and bow tie even when his job didn’t call for that—it was his way of standing tall—and he was short—in the face of an American culture that might still consider him an Italian immigrant even though he was born here.)
The colonel is a victim of the patriarchy too—he is so engulfed in his role as male provider that he, like Kathy, is in denial of his truth. His truth is that he works many menial jobs to support his family, that his Italian suits and his Mercedes are mere phantoms of a memory of more. The Behranis live excessively beyond their means so that his daughter can be “successfully” married and they can retain their social status and their son can look forward to going to a fine college. However, whatever small fortune they took with them when they left Iran is dwindling.
And Nadi, his wife, has power and grace, but she is subsumed under his benevolent dictatorship. Theirs is a loving relationship but it is not an equal partnership. In his patriarchal world, the colonel is sometimes seen to resort to physical violence (infrequent violence accompanied with apologies afterwards remains violence). We see early in the film in flashbacks to Iran that the colonel has toppled large luscious pine trees in order to survey the ocean view “to infinity”. As he orders this, we see his wife on the beach running with the children. The seeds of destruction are already sown. (At first I thought her running was in distress for what he had done with the trees but reviewing the scene, she is instead colluding with his action—women are not innocent in patriarchy either. The patriarchy, to expand the metaphor, is the energy behind destruction of, e.g., rain forests—brute force to overcome “obstacles” and whatever is “in the way” of “progress”, power, money.) Nadi is caught in a gilded cage and doesn’t question his authority which provides a comfortable life for her and her son. (In his succeeding to marry his daughter off to a wealthy Irani family, there became another gilded cage in the making.) Nadi pushes and pressures her colonel, playing into the patriarchy.
The deputy sheriff Burdon who attempts to “rescue” Kathy, another patriarchal gesture of “I know better even when I do things illicitly”, seems to be the most unconscious complex driven figure of them all. Unhappy in his marriage, he “befriends” Kathy after he serves her the eviction notice. He drinks wine in her presence and she, of course, doesn’t resist the temptation. These are two people driven by their own dark psychological complexities and neediness and they feed each other with their dysfunction. Burdon, like Colonel Behrani, uses brute force against his wife when she confronts him about his affair with Kathy.
Patriarchal power is in charge; and what the archetypal feminine symbolizes, compassion and connection, is demeaned. Both women and men need this feminine aspect to soften patriarchy’s harshness.
Esmail, the son of the Behranis, would seem to be the hope for the integration of the masculine and feminine—who might carry the loving compassion and connection that tempers patriarchy’s rigidity and relentless need for control.
Instead, it becomes Kathy’s choice. Unable to psychically leave her father’s house, she perhaps is finally awakening to the world she must create for herself, post eviction and in the aftermath of tragedy, and with no illusions about either being sacrificed/victimized to the government’s blind-to-human-plight bureaucratic patriarchy or “rescued” by the blundering power of the father authority figure of deputy sheriff Burdon. Would that she could have learned sooner that leaving her father’s house was what she had to accomplish all along. There may have been less suffering. House of Sand and Fog drives home (pardon the pun) how inter-connected we are in our psychic woundedness. The more we heal ourselves, the more we heal the world.
 Blood in this film might be considered to be a symbol of the feminine—blood is messy, blood is the mysterious menses, the sacred mysteries of women; and blood might also be a symbol of sacrifice.
But blood is assiduously avoided in the Behrani family—the feminine is feared.
Early on, we see the colonel admonishing his son as he arrives home from athletic practice with a wounded leg—“do not get blood on the floor”—we then see the bloody leg and immediately the scene shifts to the moon, the feminine menses symbol. One may ponder if the colonel’s concern with bloody messes has a history—did blood shedding occur at his hand under the patriarchal power of the Shah? Later, Nadi and Esmail wrap Kathy’s bloody foot in a plastic bag before she crosses the threshold into their/her house and they tend to her injury.