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Every now and then, a film leaves me speechless, not because I'm so overwhelmed that I can't speak, but because everything that does come to mind seems so misleadingly partial that silence is preferable. Let me begin, then, with the medicine, instead of trying to hide it: Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor is an earnest movie about our nation's disgraceful immigration policies, and if you don't come out of the theatre as mad as Professor Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), pounding his drum in the Broadway-Lafayette station of the IND, then I hope that you'll just stop reading this Web log, because I'd rather like to think that I have nothing to say to the likes of you. In fact, if you don't come out of the theatre so roused by the drama of The Visitor that it completely dissolves any sense of "message," well — well...
In the Book Review this weekend,* George Will observes of Richard Hofstadter that he "seemed not to understand that condescension is not an argument." I feel similarly disabled. I'm mindful that The Visitor is, of all the pictures set in New York City that I have ever seen, including the entire oeuvre of Woody Allen, the one that best captures the life of the city that I actually live in; the extraordinary intimacy that was evoked by that resemblance must affect my judgment of the film in ways that people who live elsewhere — Paris, Texas, or Paris, France — probably won't share. Like the good people of Paris, France, but to an even greater, or at least more visible, extent, I live in a city that is very substantially populated by immigrants. In fact, those of us who were actually born here constitute a minuscule minority, for the immigrants who don't come from other countries come from other American states, which for all intents and purposes are no closer to Gotham than Timbuctoo is. Real New Yorkers come from everywhere on Earth (although probably not from Washington, DC); and anyone who's a real New Yorker deserves, ipso facto, to live in New York City, whatever the state of his or her papers. My condescension, when speaking of The Visitor — a movie that shares my outlook on this point with an eloquence that I should never equal — as a towering cinematic achievement, is at least as monumental as the Empire State Building. Like that tower, it is not an argument. But it is a tower.
Now that I have placed the medicine bottle on the table and prescribed the dosage — see this movie! — let me tell you what went through my mind when I wasn't furious with the heirs & assigns of the INS and ashamed of being a lawyer. I was thinking that Hiam Abass, a Palestine actress approaching the age of fifty, is an amazing discovery: I want to see every movie that she has ever made. In The Visitor, she plays, with the greatest imaginable artistry, the role of Mouna Khalil, the mother of a young Syrian man who, in a mishap at a subway turnstile, falls into the maw of American inequity. She leaves her home in Michigan and comes to New York to find him after five days pass without a phone call. If she's that kind of mom — the kind who needs to hear from her son every day — she certainly has reason to be. The widow of a Syrian journalist who was so maltreated in prison that he died soon after release, she knows all about the ways of jailers, and when she bitterly bursts out, in a taxi coming back to Manhattan from a detention center in the soulless heart of formerly industrial Queens, "It's just like Syria!" you know how far the United States has fallen. Her finest moment, I thought, comes during a dinner that she has cooked for Walter, her unexpected American host. When Mouna asks him about his work, he brushes her off, saying that he finds it difficult to describe to anyone who is not a writer. You see in a flash that he has completely missed the fact that she is an educated woman, probably a writer herself but at least the widow, as I say and as Walter knows, of a journalist. You see Mouna decide that politeness obliges her to swallow this thoughtless, unintended insult, and, when she does, the meaning of "Ugly American" smacks you right in the face.
Not that Walter is an ugly American. He is simply a closed-down widower. His wife, a concert pianist eminent enough to have recorded Beethoven sonatas, died some time ago, and, like Lawrence Wetherhold, the professor played by Dennis Quaid in Smark People — a film that has nothing else in common with The Visitor — Walter has lost the salt of life. He is a living dead man. Obliged to fill in for a an indisposed colleague at at conference at NYU, he reluctantly drives down to the city from his Connecticut campus, planning to stay at the New York apartment that he shared with his wife and has never given up. He is surprised to find the flat occupied. You begin to wonder at precisely this point just to whom it is that the movie's title refers.
For half an hour or so, Walter falls into a romance, a reconnection with life opened by Tarek (Haaz Sleiman, in a compulsively appealing performance), the young Syrian in possession. We never learn precisely why Tarek and his girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira) think that they're entitled to live in Walter's flat, but we believe their bona fides from the start: it's enough to guess that all three have been taken by a New York real-estate con. Walter lets the otherwise homeless couple stay on at his place — unlike Lawrence Wetherhold, he is not a sink of self-absorption — and although he dutifully attends his conference sessions, he presently falls under the sway of Tarek's drumming. He allows himself to be taught a thing or two; he even drums along with Tarek in Central Park. It's in the wake of that high moment that Tarek, caught on the wrong side of a turnstile, loses his freedom, and Walter, with a passion that is beautifully overlaid by the sense of a return to life (Walter is never self-righteous, even during the one moment when he's really angry), devotes himself to liberating his young friend.
The Visitor is not a fairy tale. It does not set its sights on a happy ending. To do so would doubtlessly interfere with its political objective, but it would also spoil us with a resolution that, at the very least, would fail for hastiness. One longs for Walter and Mouna to find a future together, even as one desperately hopes that Mr McCarthy won't let this happen within the frame of his film. Mr McCarthy does not disappoint, and neither does his film. (May 2008)
Copyright (c) 2008 Pourover Press