If you’ve ever spent time in a foreign, more traditional culture, you know how strangely unsettling it can be to return to the West. My most memorable experience in this regard was my first trip to Iran, which, I told people later, in some ways reminded me of America in the 1950s or early ’60s. The public sphere is nothing but propriety and government-enforced modesty. Life moves at a languorous pace, electronic advertising is virtually unknown, and Western-style sex and violence appear nowhere in movies and TV. Family life is the center of everything, and strangers find themselves warmly welcomed in any home they enter. Sure, it’s a repressive theocracy, and the effect of that on political life has been chilling. Yet, paradoxically, the effect on real “quality of life” issues hasn’t been entirely unsalutary.

In any case, I stayed long enough on that first visit to get used to the Islam-meets-Back to the Future vibe, so that landing in Europe on the way back was something of a shock. For a couple of days I couldn’t get over how everything seemed hectic, money-driven, crass and soulless, awash in a swill of lascivious images and commercial come-ons. The word that kept recurring was decadent.

Of course, the sensation wears off quickly. But I also think it’s worth hanging onto, if only as a memory, and I wish more Americans had the chance to experience it, for the simple reason that it’s difficult to judge one’s society solely from the inside. Sharing an outsider’s viewpoint–seeing ourselves as others see us–sometimes offers the only perspective that produces genuine clarity.

I had an inkling of that sensation again in watching Vadim Perelman’s House of Sand and Fog, but I hasten to add that I’m not sure that your–or anyone’s–reaction to the film will exactly match mine. In fact, that’s one of the most fascinating things about this very subtle and engrossing movie. It gives us two sets of characters pitted at the opposite sides of a very stark argument, and repeatedly makes us question which side we agree with–identify with–and why. Does it make a difference that the characters on one side are ordinary Americans while the others are Iranian immigrants? You bet it does.

Adapted from the bestselling novel by Andre Dubus III (son of the author of the fiction that became the acclaimed movie In the Bedroom), House of Sand and Fog centers on a conflict that’s archetypally powerful because it’s so profoundly mundane: a struggle over a piece of real estate. Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), an out-of-sorts young woman who’s recently kicked a drug habit and split from her husband, lives in a modest Bay Area bungalow she inherited from her father. One day, officers show up and tell her she’s being evicted for nonpayment of taxes that she didn’t know she owed. That’s bad enough, but before Kathy can sort out her legal situation, the state, deciding she’s in the wrong, auctions the house.

The buyer is Massoud Behrani (Ben Kingsley), a former colonel in the Shah’s air force who’s been reduced to working on road crews and at gas stations. Behrani has a bit of money saved up, though, and he sees buying the house as a way to elevate his family–including wife Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and teen son Esmail (Jonathan Ahdout)–from their recent ill fortune. He figures that after fixing the property up a bit and living there a few months, he can triple his investment.

Kathy is far too furious at the invasion of her home to act anything but irrationally toward Behrani, and he responds with the icy anger of a proud military man who, in this case, happens to be well within the rights granted him by his adopted country. What he doesn’t reckon on is that Kathy will find a secret and devious ally in one of the officers who evicted her. Lester Burden (Ron Eldard) takes notice of Kathy that first day, and offers help. Soon he’s not only sleeping with her but saying he wants to leave his wife and two kids for her. He also offers wine to Kathy, who’s been clinging with all her might to the wagon.

That last detail–the casual offer of a drink to a recovering alcoholic–is one of numerous signals that Kathy and Lester, the “American” characters we would normally identify with, are maybe not worth the lion’s share of our sympathy. And this in turn touches on the film’s most meaningful and ingenious ploy: letting us see both sides of the central dispute while also allowing our sympathies to seesaw between characters who are “like us” and those who are “different.”

The results do not flatter us. For while the Behranis reflect the values of a traditional culture, such as pride and dignity and family loyalty, Kathy and Lester are relentlessly self-absorbed, the products of a culture characterized by divorce, dependency and dysfunction. (Again, the word decadence occurs.) Yet if this sounds like a bit of sly America-bashing, it’s not. The film’s gist is tragic, not polemical. And the real struggle it dramatizes, one might say, is not national but cultural and historical. On one side of the divide stands the modern West with all its opportunities and confusions. On the other side is an older world that is assumed to be guilty of some deep atavism unless it chooses to adopt the West’s ways. But is it?

Since House of Sand and Fog poses some of the most penetrating, timely and usefully challenging questions offered by any film in the year of the Iraq War, I wish I could say I bought the whole package. But I was puzzled right off by Massoud Behrani, who must be the only well-off Iranian ever to come to the U.S. and end up poor rather than richer. We’re also meant to believe that he’s successfully hidden his menial jobs from his extended family and other Iranian-Americans.

Even if we suspend disbelief of all that, I fear the Iranians are drawn a bit too sentimentally and generically. Kingsley seems to be playing “Middle Eastern” rather than specifically Iranian, and the genuinely Iranian Aghdashloo (who starred in Abbas Kiarostami’s brilliant pre-revolutionary film The Report) gives a performance that’s too broad by half. In this arena at least, the Americans fare better: Connelly creates a believably unhinged Kathy, and, best of all, Eldard gives a Lester who chillingly seems made of equal parts nice guy and psycho.

Debuting director Perelman, a native of Russia, himself immigrated to the U.S. where he became a successful TV commercials director. In those two facts you have a glimpse at both the strengths and weaknesses of House. For while there’s a good deal of obvious personal feeling in the movie’s mounting, it is also a little too slick and eager to impress. Like other directors of commercials, Perelman seems not to fully grasp the distinction between expressing something and selling the audience on something: Thus he gives us photography that’s too self-consciously pretty and a score that never settles for subtlety.

No doubt, he was concerned that a more austere approach would put off mainstream moviegoers. Yet he needn’t have worried: House of Sand and Fog will reach audiences simply for being so deeply emotional and unusually thought-provoking.

Another, somewhat brighter film about a foreign family in the U.S., In America is a much sharper piece of film craft than House of Sand and Fog. It’s getting second place here only because, as a more typical immigrants story, it’s not quite so striking in its thematic ambitions.

In the film, the great Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, The Boxer) recalls the time in the early ’80s when he came to New York as a struggling actor, accompanied by his wife and two daughters. Only, here the auteur changes a couple of things: He makes the setting the present day, and he adds the story element that the family lost a young son to a tragic death before leaving Ireland, something that actually happened not to one of Sheridan’s children, but to his brother. (Thus, he says, the man in the film is an amalgam of Sheridan and his father–not to mention Leopold Bloom and Shakespeare, who both lost young sons!)

Bittersweet, happy-sad, but wholly engaging, In America is the kind of poetic memoir that succeeds through moments and moods, and through a director’s complete control of his medium. Its New York is a place where a sketchy tenement can somehow add up to a happy home, AIDS-stricken neighbors and would-be muggers and bitter memories notwithstanding. Where a little Irish girl grows a bit more American by singing “Desperado” in a school assembly, and an actor finds an emblem of necessary catharsis in, of all things, E.T.

Sheridan gets wonderful performances from Paddy Considine as the actor and Samantha Morton as his wife, and the delightful Emma and Sarah Bolger as their young daughters. In all, this is not only Sheridan’s most personal film but his most subtly magical, a lovely testament to America as a haven for individuals and families seeking renewal. It is well worth your post-holiday movie-going time. EndBlock