A Welcome Visitor

11 07 2008

“The Visitor” 2007

Starring: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Denai Jekesia Gurira, Hiam Abbass

“The Visitor” wants us to know the importance of embracing diversity, for one. Walter Vale is lonely, unstimulated, and uninspired in his life as a college professor in a generic-looking Connecticut University. He is desperately searching for a way to reconnect with the world he felt more comfortable in when his wife was still alive. Tinkering at the classical piano that his wife was a master of does not appear to be working.

What Walter needs is something a bit more colorful, more unique, and challenging. He finds this in the two illegal immigrants he catches squatting in his Manhattan apartment, which he visits for the first time in years to attend a conference in New York. The people who Walter generally associates with are presented to us as mind-numbingly boring intellectuals who all contentedly reside in the same sterile universe from which Walter needs to break free. Tarek and Zainab, on the other hand, are a young couple trying their best to remain under the radar of American authorities intent on deporting them back to Syria and Senegal, respectively.

Tarek is immediately more engaging than any of the characters we’ve seen in Walter’s small circle, and the two connect almost instantly. One can’t imagine that anyone would have difficulty connecting with the ever-smiling, kind, and creative Tarek. But then we must remind ourselves of our country’s collective tendency to hold Middle Eastern immigrants, and all immigrants for that matter, at arm’s-length in the wake of the War in Iraq and newly-implemented immigration policies.

Speaking of those policies. Who is it that we are trying to protect ourselves from? Tarek correctly observes that “terrorists,” that ever-elusive group that we would like to lump him into based on his place of birth, have funding and support. He is a poor musician whose only family is a mother who lives alone, also illegally, in Michigan. His father, we discover, was essentially killed for his publication of anti-government literature in Syria. And so the rest of his small family fled their oppressive country and sought asylum in the United States. Perhaps they didn’t realize that we are equally oppressive, especially toward people who do not belong. We just dress it up a little differently.

“The Visitor” is the second powerful and startling film about immigration issues in the United States that I have seen this year. But unlike “Under the Same Moon” (which, incidentally, was wonderful and effective in its own right), “The Visitor” doesn’t sugar-coat anything. This film shows us the price we pay, and the much higher price we force “outsiders” to pay, for our fear of foreigners (I mean that both literally and figuratively. People from foreign lands who have lives and practices completely foreign to our own). Will we ever be lucky enough to meet the kind of people that “The Visitor” shows us, those with richly textured and sometimes tragic but interesting and beautiful experiences that are simply alien to us? Not if do not allow ourselves to do so. Not if we continue to push them away out of fear for our safety (I will assert here that it is not nearly as much out of fear for our safety as it is out of fear for our sedated stability, or our aversion to diversity).

This film is also about an awakening. It is about an American man who for all practical purposes appears to have a normal, stable, successful life. But he is sleepwalking through it. It is not until he meets people who challenge the monotony that he has become accustomed to that he comes alive. And he is open to them simply because he has nothing to lose by accepting new people into his life except his constant aloneness (solitude is not the right word here. It suggests peacefulness and contentedness. Walter is not content. His is utterly alone and lonely in a world filled with people).

There are so many amazing facets to this film that I am not even touching upon in this review. It includes a beautiful love story that is not forced or exploited in any way. It features characters that we feel affection for first and foremost as human beings before they are American, African or Middle Eastern, pink, brown, or tea-colored. It is gripping but subtle. It doesn’t try to tear at our heartstrings, but it does, and effectively.





One response

3 08 2008

Thanks !

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