The family are away this weekend, so this afternoon I took myself to see The Visitor. I enjoyed it very much. On the surface, it’s a movie about illegal immigration… but unlike so many “issue” movies, most of what it’s really about – loneliness, isolation, and the human need for friendship and meaning – goes on under and around and through the plot line. The performances are uniformly excellent in a quiet, character-actor way, and I really cared about what would happen to these people (and would love to know what happened to them after the credits rolled.) Oh, and did I mention that there’s some great drumming? :)
That said, there is of course a political dimension to the film – but I give the writer and director full credit for not beating us over the head with it. While I find it hard to disagree with the implicit message that there is something broken at the heart of our immigration system, I appreciate that they present these characters as fully-realized people, not simply as injured innocents – although there are a couple of moments that seem somewhat disingenuous, generally they rise above the level of the blatantly obvious – and make their political points as gracefully as possible under the circumstances. (Their agenda is somewhat more confrontational on the official website, where all the illegal characters are referred to as “undocumented citizens”, a pernicious and inaccurate term that can only aim to obscure the truths that the film itself explores. Words matter.)
In the end, at the heart of this movie is a question – one that has stayed with me all evening, and that I don’t truly know the answer to… What would I do?
[Added 5/25 – I thought of a little more to say… For a serious (and sad) story, The Visitor has a surprising amount of gentle humor that, again, rises naturally from the characters and their relationships. It’s a large part of what made me care about the characters and their fates.
Also, I found interesting the multiple cultural layerings – not just the obvious encounter between the extremely white economics professor and the Arabic and African characters, but the multi-cultural layerings in the immigrant world as well. Syrian Tarek has a girlfriend from Senegal, and plays the West African djembe rather than the doumbek or tar; Walter takes Mouna to an Asian restaurant; Zainab shares market table space with an Israeli craftsman. Part of this is probably a product of the film’s setting (New York City), but I suspect it was also a conscious artistic choice.
*SMALL SPOILER ALERT*
I am also intrigued with the fact that, right to the end, Walter was never able to articulate that he considered Tarek a friend. He certainly showed it in his actions, but when Zainab and – especially – Mouna kept telling him “you don’t have to do this. It’s not your problem”, he kept giving different reasons for helping; but he never said the one thing I expected him to say.]