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Foreign friendship

Movies | The Visitor offers a quiet look at the immigrant, and native, experience

Issue: "Wealth and poverty," March 14, 2009

The Visitor, a quiet, touching film about a lonely economics professor's encounter with a Syrian man presents an interesting counterpoint to another movie that tackled the subject of immigration in 2008: Gran Torino.

Stylistically, there's little parallel to draw between the two movies. Unassuming and reflective, The Visitor is as inoffensive as Gran Torino was provocative, earning a PG-13 for garden-variety obscenities that come nowhere near the racist verbal acrobatics Clint Eastwood employed. And while Eastwood's crowd pleaser gave us Walt Kowalski, a blue-collar, foul-mouthed bigot, The Visitor offers up the crisply academic but equally isolated Dr. Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins).

Yet, like Walt, Walter believes he has a grasp on the effects of immigration in the United States. The only difference is that where factory-worker Walt held a reactionary perspective that had him painting all his foreign-born neighbors as lazy, parasitic invaders, Walter starts with an Ivory Tower-approved, liberal outlook. His specialty is economic globalization, and we get the sense that he could hold his own discussing immigration policy at any D.C. cocktail party even though he has no real interest in the subject. In fact, he has little interest in anything because, just like Eastwood's character, losing his wife has made him withdraw into himself to such a point that he no longer connects with anyone-not even his son.

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Then Walter is called upon to go to New York to present a paper for a bedridden colleague. When he arrives at the apartment he has kept there for years, he discovers two illegal aliens living in it. Victims of a housing scam, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira) believed they had legitimately rented the place, so Walter, acting out of a need he doesn't fully understand, allows the pair to stay until they work out other living arrangements.

Despite their differences, Tarek and Walter become fast friends, with Walter not only finding an extended family of sorts, but also, under Tarek's tutelage, a new passion for drums. Jenkins' character, like Eastwood's, is freed by the joy of receiving affection from someone who offers it more easily than anyone in his own circle of acquaintances. Walter may have written books on the integration of foreigners into our own culture, but he doesn't really know what it means till, in one of the movie's funniest and most uplifting scenes, he's accepted with wide grins into a tribal drumming session in Central Park.

In contrast to Walter and Tarek's relationship, the film subtly points out the hypocrisy of a certain breed of well-to-do city dwellers. When a blonde globe-trotter offering to purchase some of Zainab's handmade jewelry learns that Zainab is from Senegal, the woman offers a glib, "Oh, I was in Cape Town last year." We later learn that the two locales are more than 8,000 kilometers apart. An easy faux pas to forgive, to be sure, but the exchange reveals that however politically correct the woman may be, her real interest is not in getting to know people from other cultures, but in appearing cosmopolitan.

Unfortunately, the last 15 minutes of The Visitor devolve somewhat into political exposition. When Walter suddenly makes a labored public speech that doesn't at all square with the tentative but genuine personality we've gotten to know, it becomes clear that writer/director Thomas McCarthy finds many of our post-9/11 immigration policies untenable. But while McCarthy may in the end make the mistake of so many Hollywood screenwriters-assuming that personal experiences should always trump global consequences-he still gives spiritually minded viewers a movie to enjoy and some worthwhile themes to chew on.

Megan Basham
Megan Basham

Megan, a regular correspondent for WORLD News Group, is a writer and film critic living in Memphis, Tenn.. She is the author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide to Having It All.

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