Friday, October 21, 2011

The Visitor

I completely get that illegal immigration is a big problem. Living in South Florida I see the effects on everything from law enforcement to health care to our educational system. What I don't get is how hot under the collar some people get when talking about it. They take it as a personal affront that someone could be living here without a green card. It's almost like they believe their citizenship is in jeopardy unless we round 'em all up and send 'em back where they came from. Pronto! If a presidential candidate says something compassionate-sounding about illegals they drop in the polls. What's going on here?

The 2008 surprise hit The Visitor from writer/director Thomas McCarthy moves beyond abstract arguments about immigration to tell the story of two typical illegal immigrants living and working in Manhattan. Tarek is a Palestinian, by way of Syria and Detroit, who earns a living playing the djembe (an African drum) in Village jazz clubs. His Senegalese girlfriend Zainab sells her handcrafted jewelry at one of the many open-air markets downtown. They live in an apartment, which as it turns out, has been illegally sublet to them by a man they know only as "Ivan". Tarek and Zainab are played affectingly by newcomers Haaz Sleiman and Danai Gurira.

However, before meeting those two we meet Walter Vale, a widowed economics professor at a northeastern college. Walter is a classic case of someone going through the motions. He has the look of a man who's been "mailing it in" for a while. The loss of his wife and midlife ennui has taken it's toll. He teaches his one class and is supposedly working on a book. Mostly we see him moping around the house, or attempting to play the baby grand piano in his living room. The significance of this latter detail will be revealed later on. Indeed, McCarthy adroitly reveals little surprises along the way even though we have a pretty good idea where the overall plot is going. Walter is played by veteran character actor Richard Jenkins, who made the most of his chance to play a lead by scoring a richly deserved Oscar nomination.

Rounding out the quartet of characters is Tarek's mother Mouna. She's played by Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass, a veteran of Middle Eastern films. Of the four performances her's is my favorite. Later it will emerge that Mouna's husband died as a result of spending years in prison for writing an article critical of the dictatorial Syrian regime. Mouna is a proud woman trying to navigate between her traditional Arab culture and the liberating possibilities of living in America. The subtle onscreen chemistry between Jenkins and Abbass is a primary strength of the picture.

The Visitor is a film about immigrants, both legal and illegal. It's about a middle-aged white guy's surprising journey of self-discovery. It's about the immigrant experience as it plays out in the boroughs and neighborhoods of New York City (The Visitor was shot entirely on location). And it's about the human cost of post-9/11 immigration policy. Detention and deportation have a horrifying finality when it means the severing of families and relationships. One may come away from this realistic depiction of our immigration system wishing that there was more correspondence between the rule of law and justice.

Beyond all that I found The Visitor to be a meditation on the meaning of kindness and hospitality. Not very sexy I know, but where would our world be without those virtues? Hospitality has it's origins in Latin words that mean "stranger" and "to have power". Hospitality is a Christian virtue, and as far as I know the same is true in all the major religions. In this scenario Walter is the one with all the power (he's the actual owner of the apartment!) and he has every right to kick these interloping strangers out onto the street. Instead he chooses hospitality. By doing this Walter opens himself up to a new world of experience. As Walter gets more involved in the lives of his visitors he's like a sleepwalker waking up for the first time in years. In the beginning it's Walter bestowing the blessings of kindness. By film's end it's clear that he is the one that's been blessed most of all.

Somewhere it is written, "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."

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