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Stateside with Rosalea: On Being An Immigrant


Stateside with Rosalea

On being an immigrant

By Rosalea Barker

One of the things about going to movies made here in the States is that so many things are now familiar. Not just props - I've got a phone just like that one on my desk! - but some of the cultural context as well. Two recent movies, both highly nominated for awards, are about immigrant communities. If you haven't yet seen Mystic River or House of Sand and Fog, and intend to, then read no further, because I'm about to spoil them for you.

**Mystic River** Daft apis that I am, I didn't realize that Mystic River is the actual name of the river in Boston along the banks of which lives the long-established Irish community amongst which this movie is set. People I know here in the Bay Area who grew up in that community attest that the interiors and the feel of the movie are spot on.

In the movie, two young boys are kidnapped by the stereotypes the dominant culture has imposed upon them of what their immigrant community represents. Tim Robbins is literally kidnapped by two men exuding cop-ness and priest-ness; Sean Penn simply becomes the equivalent of cop and priest in the violence-prone ambience of his neighborhood.

If you accept that children are born with an infinite capacity for fulfilling any dream they might have, and that to circumscribe that capacity by imposing cultural stereotypes on them is a form of abuse, then you're getting to the heart of what this movie is about. Physically abused, Robbins' character withdraws emotionally and suffers nightmares; Penn's character overcomes the limits of what is expected from him by becoming a tough.

Much about the movie is flawed. I found the acting too over-the-top - a friend nailed that on the head by saying the movie attempted to turn into an epic something that was merely tragic, and pointed to the film score as especially redolent of that. Then there's the little matter of the corpse that breathes and moves its eyes.

I left the theatre furious at the ending, which seemed to have been tacked on for no apparent reason except to mollify the audience about the crime Penn commits. A few days later it occurred to me that the reason for the ending is that the United States is a nation at war, and this movie is likely to be seen by service men and women.

Many of them may have, in the course of duty, made decisions that have had fatal consequences. Perhaps those decisions were taken on the basis of faulty information and assumptions, and so the movie's ending is a kind of codicil of forgiveness put there just for them.

**House of Sand and Fog** "Americans have the eyes of small children," says Ben Kingsley's character, an Iranian, in this movie about the clash between immigrant aspirations and the established community's propensity for self-destruction by simply letting things slide. He means that Americans always want things but don't have the sense of responsibility necessary to achieve or retain them.

I've never much liked Kingsley's acting style, but by the end of this movie he had absolutely won me over to unequivocal admiration for his ability as an actor. The character is a complex mix of superiority and doubt, of emotional distance and love, and of arrogance and submission.

Jennifer Connelly's character similarly goes through all manner of changes in outlook - sometimes hating the people who've been able to buy her house because she's defaulted on taxes; sometimes loving them because they are so kind to her despite her behaviour. She is perfect in this role.

The movie seemed to take a long time to develop, but when it gets into gear it packs the emotional wallop of a ten ton truck. It's set in an area I'm familiar with - San Francisco and any one of many small, foggy coastal communities near the Bay Area. Little things in the movie were allowed to speak volumes. For example, Kingsley's workmates eat their lunches of noodles and burritos, while he hungers only to buy a piece of property as an investment.

House is the first movie adaptation I've ever seen that's actually made me want to go and buy the book.

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