It’s rare these days for me to add a movie to my Netflix queue on the strength of the trailers that come at the beginning of other rentals. It feels like a zero sum game to keep adding movies. My OCD tells me to finish this queue and then add a bunch more movies later. But something about the trailer for The Visitor made me suspend that policy. I don’t even remember what it was, but somehow it affected me. It seemed like it would do what I’m always looking for movies to do – give me a different perspective. The disc showed up in my mailbox on Friday and now after having experienced it, I’m better for it. This might be the most engaging and original film experience that I’ve seen in the past few years.
The Visitor stars Richard Jenkins as Walter Vale – an introverted professor who lives in Connecticut in solitude and in the shadow of his recently deceased wife. The college calls him to make a trip to Manhattan to attend a conference and despite his resistance, he’s forced to go. Upon arriving in the apartment that he and his wife called their own in New York, he quickly realizes that he’s not alone. He awkwardly stumbles across a couple (Tarek and Zainab) who are not from New York (or even from the United States) who had been living there for months. And the story progresses from there.
As the story unfolded, I had this feeling that it would somehow play into every modern day stereotype about people not from this country. Tarek (played by Haas Sleiman) is of Syrian descent and is Muslim. I kept bracing for the unveiling that he was here as some part of terror cell. Or that he had some link to it. But refreshingly I don’t even feel like I’m spoiling in revealing that while the events of September 2001 affect the lives of everyone in this movie, none of the characters have even a remote attachment to the things that helped to cause it.
This movie has a magical quality. Often you’ll see strangers who are forced into situations where they need to learn to like each other and it just feels fabricated. But the friendship that Tarek and Walter have is completely genuine. It’s infectious. Richard Jenkins is phenomenal in his ability to portray a man who is visibly barren. While he has a beautiful home and a job that allows him to teach only one class and conduct and independent study in preparation for the writing of a book, he’s completely devoid of life. Tarek is the absolute opposite of this. He has nothing, yet his smile and his happiness reach out through the screen. I caught myself smiling several times during the interactions between Tarek and Walter.
In my favorite scene in the film, Tarek (who is a musician) leaves his drum (called a Djembe) in the apartment and somehow Richard comes home from his conference early and sees the drum. It calls him. He sees it and tries to resist. But he can’t. He takes the opportunity to try his hand at the drum and somehow Tarek finds him playing. While the introverted Walter finds himself apologizing profusely, Tarek makes him feel at ease and the two partake in a drum session/lesson that is rhythmic, funny and hopeful. It is this scene that acts as a microcosm for the entire film. If only more people would share their culture with each other (and not just in one direction), how incredible would this world be?
This movie could have taken the easy way out and thrown in a heavy musical score to try to evoke emotion. There isn’t any reason to do that here. The music that is in the film already acts as an incredible soundtrack.
This may sound a bit extreme, but for me this is more than just a five-star film with incredible and original performances. This is a film that represents the hope of a nation. There are so many contradictions in American society today. We seem to have forgotten the hope of Ellis Island in exchange for our fear of terrorists. I believe that we need to keep the nation free, but it’s the diversity that makes us strong and expands our world view. If we could all find friendship in folks who aren’t like those we are accustomed to dealing with, it would make the world a better place. When you say the word ‘diversity’, it has come to evoke a sense of resistance. “To force other cultures upon us in the hope that we’ll be more tolerant.” But somehow we missed the real strength. It is meant to be an opportunity for the exchange of customs and ideas. It’s an opportunity to expose a part of ourselves – our music, our language, our ideals. If you leave this movie with anything less than an uplifted heart, somehow you missed the point.
Don’t be like me – add this movie to your queue of movies to see without hesitation. After having seen this film, I’m in the market for a Djembe.