A couple of my grandparents were Ukrainian, so I come to the first film by Vadim Perelman, a U.S. immigrant from the Ukraine, with a predisposition in its favor. Perelman, along with Shawn Lawrence Otto (beware of authors who can’t correctly spell their own names), adapted the novel with the same title by Andre Dubus II. Although I understand that he improved upon Dubus’s narrative in a number of respects, Perelman still clung to some sort of story; he has made a narrative film that progresses scene by scene, arriving at a point of multiple disastrous consequences for its main characters that is supposed to make us reflect on the beam of causality that has been driving the narrative from the start. It is a rigid, schematic thing, then, that Perelman has wrought, and the characters he gives us scarcely come alive, existing in contrived fashion, and doing the most contrived sorts of things, totally within the confines of the film’s narrative scheme. (I am sick and tired of movies in which it appears that the characters act as they do only because they must have read the script.) Although the film is punctuated by mysterious outdoor shots of night or dusk, which are gorgeously color cinematographed by Roger Deakins, this is otherwise a banal movie at the made-for-television level. Its truths are obscure, if indeed they at all exist; instead, Perelman is afflicted with the nonsensical current urge in American cinema to tell a story. If “Ukraine” makes you think “Dovzhenko,” in this instance, think again.
The story is about a stalemate between two persons over the ownership of a house. The house is a small and modest one, but its main attraction is its distant view of the California shore. The vagueness of the view, like much else in the film, is intended to be symbolical. Nothing is more clearly and firmly planted in the American imagination than the notion of private property and one’s right to it, and one’s right to do whatever one wants with it. Yet the conflict at the heart of this film, and, I presume, the novel as well, throws these certainties into question, beseeching the audience, in message-laden fashion, to arrive at a grasp of human and humane priorities that relegates the issue of property to its due importance rather than the exaggerated importance it currently holds. I certainly do not take issue with the film’s underlying politics. It is the film’s reductive tactics, in addition to its woeful lack of clarity for all its through-line narrative insistence, that I find annoying and, finally, ridiculous.
The two major participants in the central conflict are an increasingly unstable young woman and a former colonel in the Shah of Iran’s army, who is now a U.S. citizen. The woman’s name is Kathy Nicolo, the blunt ethnicity of which is doubtless intended to invoke the cliché that America is a nation of immigrants. Nicolo is in a vulnerable state. Her father has died, leaving her and her brother, a businessman living elsewhere in California, the house in question, and her spouse, not wanting the children she looked forward to having, has recently abandoned her. It took her working-class father thirty years to pay off the mortgage on the house, and, so, it is more than “a thing” to Nicolo; it’s a symbol of both her father’s legacy and her own loving commitment to that legacy. But Perelman nowhere analyzes this symbolism, exposing its self-delusional rationalization in a system preoccupied with the importance of things over people. In any case, a bureaucratic error by the county has divested Nicolo of this house, her one home, charging her with business taxes that she cannot afford as she struggles to make ends meet as a house cleaner. Such an error, alas, isn’t farfetched; but the point is stressed that, not in business, Nicolo doesn’t really owe any money. It is also noted that her inattention to official letters, owing to a state of mind betwixt lackadaisicalness and despondency, has contributed to her loss of her home—and all this, it turns out, over a small assessment: $500. The house is put up for auction, and the buyer is the other participant in the conflict, Massoud Amir Behrani.
The house means nothing to Behrani. He merely wants to upgrade it in order to resell it at a huge profit. Behrani has convinced himself and his wife and teenaged son—the couple also have a married daughter—that they need the money in order to survive and to pay for the boy’s college education: no less a self-delusional rationalization than Nicolo’s. Behrani is a cold, hard, arrogant man who smacks his wife when he is in a sour mood, so he is hardly about to be moved by Nicolo’s pleas for the return of her home. (Nicolo wants Behrani to sell the house back to the county for the amount that he himself originally paid.) He is also a bigot who a couple of times disparages Arabs as his inferiors. Regrettably, this point may be lost on those in the audience who, in light of the two groups’ religious identity (Arabs and most Iranians are Muslims), remain ignorant to the ethnic difference between Arabs and Iranians. Behrani is an elitist whose mind swoons with nostalgia over the privileged life he enjoyed during the regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. In some mad and infantile way, he has deluded himself into believing that Nicolo’s house, and another and another to follow, is the means for restoring his pride and making him feel whole again. Another failure of the film is to describe just what a monster the Shah was, and how brutal his regime was to dissidents, inviting the Islamic Revolution of 1979.* Given the intolerant fundamentalist clerics who replaced him in power, some in the audience may mistakenly presume that the Shah was “a good guy.” Yet it seems to me that a complete understanding of Behrani’s cruelty to Nicolo, which eventually provokes her two suicide attempts, depends on a fuller portrait of what it meant to be in allegiance with such a soulless man as Pahlavi.
In any case, the upshot of the stalemate is that three persons end up dead, one ends up incarcerated, and the last person standing wants nothing more to do with the house. The resolution of the drama couldn’t be sillier or more melodramatic.
Nor could the acting of Ben Kingsley, wielding a preposterous accent, be sillier or more over-the-top. Kingsley’s trademark ineptitude renders Behrani a cartoon figure and leaves at least two of Behrani’s surprising shifts in attitude incomprehensible. Jennifer Connelly fares better as Nicolo, but she is far too beautiful to convince in such a put-upon role. Anyone who looks as good as Connelly does wouldn’t have such economic woes in the United States. Moreover, there isn’t the wear-and-tear in Connelly’s demeanor to suggest the recovering and then backsliding alcoholic that Nicolo is supposed to be. Shohreh Aghdashloo won best supporting actress prizes (for instance, from critics’ groups in New York and Los Angeles) as Behrani’s wife, Nadi. To me, her onscreen presence is negligible, however.
* from William Blake’s “The Grey Monk”: “The hand of Vengeance found the Bed/ To which the Purple Tyrant fled[;]/ The iron hand crush[e]d the Tyrant[‘]s head/ And became a Tyrant in his stead”—except that Pahlavi, well taken care of, died in exile of cancer.