The Visitor
directed by Thomas McCarthy
(Overture, 2008)

Dr. Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is not interested in going to New York City to present a paper at a conference to help a fellow colleague and co-author. His own life takes precedence -- though from what we see, all that's happening is he's not prepared for his classes and he's failing piano lessons as well. Unfortunately, his dean doesn't see it that way.

When he arrives in New York, he discovers someone bathing in his tub. That would be Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), a young Senegalese woman who is as surprised to see him as he is her. The person sleeping in one of his beds is Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a young Syrian man who sublet Vale's neglected apartment from a person Vale doesn't even know.

Vale cannot turn the pair out into the street, so he allows them to remain. As their acquaintance grows, Vale learns how to play the djembe from Tarek and also of the plight of illegal aliens -- particularly Muslim ones post 9/11 -- after Tarek is erroneously arrested in the subway for jumping the turnstile.

One of the most heartbreaking scenes in this movie is when Vale takes Zaineb and Tarek's mother Moona (Hiam Abbass) to Staten Island. The women, who are both illegal, see the Statue of Liberty in all her glory. Zaineb relates how Tarek, who is now in detention, used to ride the ferry and jump up and down every time Lady Liberty came in sight, pretending it was his first time in America.

Vale learns there's music in everyone's soul. If you can't play the piano, move on to another instrument until you find one whose music is in sync with your own rhythm. It's fascinating to see a 60-year-old balding white guy in a suit playing djembe with the casually clad ethnics.

Overall, the film is one that will leave you thinking: The Visitor is not a summer popcorn film. By the time you have walked out, you will want both to find the music in you and to learn more about U.S. policies towards immigration and whether they are as inhumane as they appear to be.

My husband and I left The Visitor wishing there were more, hoping there was a good outcome for all the characters. In the lobby, we met a man who had attended the Sundance Film Festival where The Visitor screened for the first time. He told us this was the only film that year to get a standing ovation. I understand why.

review by
Becky Kyle

5 July 2008

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