Monday, July 7, 2008

"The Visitor"

I read one blogger who (with outrage eyes) saw Tom McCarthy’s film, The Visitor, as liberal propaganda about post-9/11 US mistreatment of Muslims. It would help this interpretation of the film if the words ’Muslim’ or ‘Islam’ were anywhere part of the soundtrack or if all Syrians or Senegalese could be reliably depicted as at least non-Christian.

There can be no doubt that the film’s immigrants are illegal and callously treated for no particular reason, but some presumably honest individual finding such a strong religious twist to the film ought to make us wonder about what we actually experience when we go to the movies or even when we walk outside afterwards. How much of our experience is actually happening? Is so much of what we experience being shaped by our expectations that we can never know what is real?

When I watched The Visitor at my local Landmark Theatre, I saw a story about Walter, a college professor who has lost his way, but now begins to discover in drumming new possibility for meaning in his life. This drumming is introduced to him through Tarek, the illegal Syrian immigrant he finds living in his long-abandoned NYC apartment.

Maybe we should compromise between these extreme interpretations and say that “the film’s title refers to [Walter] — a transient presence in his own life —as much as it does to Tarek, who seems at home wherever he is.” *

Walter is no where at home when the story begins. He tries to connect with the life he shared with his dead wife through learning to play the piano, as she did. But that is no more successful than finding meaning in his teaching or in writing another book. By ‘accident’ he is forced to return to the apartment he shared with her many years ago and there he finds through his visitor, Tarek, the musical connection to the feeling life that he seeks.

The Visitor storyline is far simpler than its emotional impact. Political activists will be driven toward righting our panicked Ship of State. Introspectives may be drawn to Walter’s life predicament and the powerful personal connection he finds through the music that embraces his foreign soul.

Go see this movie. I’m afraid that its impact may be lessened by seeing it alone on your little TV screen. For me the film is still about being at home — at home in your own skin; at home in the society where you live; an awkward, sometimes angry visitor.

We didn't talk about Tarek's mother, but we should have — a real traditionalist we think she is. The modernist, Tarek, strives to keep her in the dark about his Senegalese girlfriend. [One blogger actually refers to Tarek's girlfriend as "his wife", but nothing could be farther from what we see happening on the screen.] Fortunately, this mother is one traditionalist for whom love trumps all.

Not surprisingly we can feel Walter falling in love with this woman's solid ways. We, too, admire her as she rises above stereotype and accepts Tarek's loving embrace of "ethnic diversity".

Her name in Mouna [The Mouna Diamond weighs 112.53 carats and is of even greater color and weight than the Tiffany Diamond.] and at first it seems like this will be Red State Mouna vs. Blue State Walter. But in the end they are unified in their inability to deal with the monstrosity that our government has become.

The Visitor may be the story of Walter Vale's quest for a truly living identity, but his story takes place in the wasteland that our weak-kneed politicians seem hell-bent on creating.

* A. O. SCOTT in The New York Times film review, April 11, 2008.

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