House of Sand and Fog may be the saddest film I have ever seen. It demonstrates the tragic consequences of failed communication, when two people are, metaphorically speaking, on opposite sides of the table unable to find a compromise middle ground before it is too late to avoid catastrophe.
There is a well-known story in the Talmud (Gittin 55b) explaining the origins of the destruction of the Holy Second Temple in Jerusalem. A man wanted to invite all his friends to a big party. He sent an invitation to his friend Kamtza, but his servant mistakenly delivered the invite to his enemy Bar Kamtza.
When Bar Kamtza showed up at the feast, he was told to leave. Rather than be embarrassed, Bar Kamtza offered to pay for the entire feast. In spite of this generous offer, Bar Kamtza was ejected from the festivities. The rabbis who were present and witnessed this exchange said nothing, and Bar Kamtza assumed they were complicit in causing his embarrassment. In anger, he went to the Roman authorities and said the Jews were disloyal to Rome. The Romans took this slander as truth and proceeded to attack and destroy both the Jews and their Temple. Self-absorption, misunderstanding, an inability to see things from another’s perspective led to this tragedy. This is the essential narrative crux of House of Sand and Fog.
Kathy Nicolo is depressed. Her husband has left her months ago. She lives alone in small house near San Francisco Bay. Because of her failure to respond to eviction notices for non-payment of county fees, her home is sold at auction to Massoud Amir Behrani, a former Iranian Army Colonel who fled Iran when the Ayatollah assumed control of the country. For Behrani, the purchase of the home represents his final opportunity to gain respect for himself, for his wife, Naderah, and for his son, Esmail. His goal is to fix up the dilapidated house and sell it for four times the purchase price in order to provide a comfortable life for this wife and for a college education for his son.
Kathy feels the county has illegally has sold her home and enlists the aid of a lawyer and Deputy Sherriff Lester Burden to help her reclaim her house. And so begins an acerbic relationship between Kathy and Behrani, both of whom assume they are in the right.
Kathy willfully destroys the lives of others in her quest to get her house back, while Behrani does not understand the desperate straits that motivate her actions. Things reach a breaking point when Lester, posing as another policeman, threatens Behrani with deportation of his family back to Iran where certain death awaits them. Behrani, who is a bonafide American citizen, discovers that he is the victim of extortion and reports Lester’s misrepresentation to the internal affairs department of the police department, further driving a wedge between Kathy and Behrani.
Tensions escalate until an unspeakable tragedy suddenly awakens sympathy for the other. Calamity has the power to take a person out of his own malaise and makes him aware of the troubles of other human beings. It is a painful way to learn.
Jewish law and lore places a high priority on harmonious relations between people. Knowing that everyone is created in the image of God means that everyone is important, everyone is unique and has infinite potential. Therefore, one cannot be dismissive of anyone, for everyone deserves respect, even if they do not agree with you.
Our Sages tell us not to hold grudges or be vengeful. Rather, anytime we encounter friction, we need to try and work it out. We need to ask ourselves if we are at fault for miscommunication. Once we recognize our own faults and correct them, we can bring the ultimate redemption of mankind one step closer. Kathy Nicola learns this lesson too late.