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The Visitor, 2008, directed by Tom McCarthy.

Movie Review: The Visitor
Deciding who the real "visitor" is – the American economist or the illegal immigrants?

-- Ben Burrows

Reading Phyllis Chesler’s review of The Visitor , one might conclude that the movie is about injustice to Muslim illegal immigrants in a post-9/11 America. In fact, the issue of religion is minimized in a number of ways. The only professed Muslim character, Tarek, introduces himself as a “bad Muslim,” in the sense that he no longer practices his religion, comparing his faith to the faith of his parents. Tarek and his mother immigrated to the United States from Syria as politically persecuted refugees, after Tarek’s father was killed for writing an article not approved by the Assad government. We find out much later in the movie that their request for asylum has been denied. Having nowhere else to go, and without resources to fight the judgment, they remain here, first in Detroit, and later for Tarek in New York City.

Director Tom McCarthy’s previous hit movie, The Station Agent was another off-beat study of how those considered “strangers” to society reach out to find a place for themselves. In this case, a small person (Peter Dinklage) takes up residence in an abandoned train station. He finds two other friends in town, and forms a welcome if unlikely set of friendships. Just as The Station Agent fails as a two-hour midget joke, but succeeds as a metaphor of isolation in modern America, so The Visitor fails as propaganda, but succeeds in portraying the life of a lonely American, who reaches out for connection through music in a way that his career as an economist cannot provide for him.

The lonely American in The Visitor is Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) an economics professor at a Connecticut university, whose concert pianist wife has died. He has taught the same introductory economics course for years, and continues his life and research in a personal bubble. He attempts to reconnect to the spirit of his wife by trying to learn the piano. He cycles through four piano teachers, but he has no talent for the instrument. As the movie opens, we see him terminating his relationship with his fourth teacher. Later we see Vale refusing to accept a late paper: asked why the paper is late, the student explains that he had some “personal issues”; when the student confronts Vale by complaining that Vale himself is late handing out the course syllabus (from a course he has taught for so long, he is bored with the prospect), Vale simply dismisses the student, and later applies white-out to change the year on his last syllabus.

Through a series of accidents, Vale is required to present the paper (which he nominally co-authored) of a pregnant Ph.D. student, at a New York University symposium. We find that Vale has apparently been keeping the apartment he occupied with his wife, though grief has apparently kept him in Connecticut. When he enters the apartment, he finds traces of other lives, including fresh flowers. We discover that the apartment super has rented out Walter’s apartment to a couple of illegal immigrants – one, Tarek, the musician, and the other Zainab (Daina Gurira), a jewelry artist in the style of her native Senegal. Discovering that Walter is not a thief, but the legitimate renter of the apartment, the couple first decides to leave for the street. Later, Walter decides to let them stay, and establishes a surprising new set of friendships with his new acquaintances.

Walter’s trajectory, from global economics instructor to subway and street musician, is made believable by his increasing frustration with his academic duties. Tarek’s trajectory, from jazz club musician to deported undesirable, is made into a tragedy by his mother’s admission that she “protected” Tarek from knowing that their asylum had been rejected. It is all the more tragic that he is returned to the brutal hands of the Assad regime, where because of his family history, he will almost certainly be imprisoned or killed. Tarek’s mother Mouna (Haim Abbas) after developing a brief relationship with Walter, returns to Syria herself so that she can help her son in any way that she can. Zainab has moved on to live with her sister, but mourns her relationship with Tarek, as the movie closes. It is difficult to see how Chesler can view this film primarily as one about injustice to Muslims. The indifferent injustice of an outsourced detention center applies equally to all illegal immigrants. The problem apparently is in an adequate consideration of asylum to persecuted political refugees under Bush Administration policies.

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