Friday, April 25, 2008

The Visitor: A gentle parable for all faiths (review)

Overture Films and Participant have come up with a gentle parable about hospitality with “The Visitor”.

First, though, let’s deal with the music. Widower college professor Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) starts the movie with half-hearted piano lessons from visiting teachers. I remember those drop-rolls. His heart is not into practicing Bach. His wife had been a concert pianist, and excerpts from her recording of the Beethoven Walstein Sonata are sometimes played. The teacher suggests that he could sell his Baldwin piano to her if he is going to give this up.

The other music, African drum, taught to him by the Palestinian visitor Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), has a real beat, with some linear woodwind melodies on top. In one scene, Tarek, somewhat mistakenly, connects classical to “4 beat” time and says that drum beat music has just three. Actually, the rhythm is rather syncopated and sounds more like 6/4 (a favorite signature of Brahms). In the final scene, Vale has been transformed, playing the drums without thinking in the Broadway and Lafayette subway station, not needing the tips.

As for the story, first: the one weakness. It seems facile that Vale, teaching and living in Connecticut, has an unused apartment in Manhattan, given real estate prices. The rest rings true. With the loss of his wife, he has lost all motive to create. It wouldn’t be that way for everyone, but it is for him. He needs someone to care about. He is pressured by the Dean to go to New York to present a paper that he has co-authored, but it is the grad student who has written it. He seems to have little energy or industry.

It is the need of someone else that wakes him up. He quickly must become non-judgmental and be willing to take risks. He enters his apartment and finds two “foreigners” living in it. Later we will learn that had been placed there illegally in a real estate scam, and that they are illegal aliens. Tarek, the Palestinian, seems genuine enough, and Walter wants to help him, and lets him stay. Tarek teaches him drums. But soon Tarek gets busted by transit cops trying to lug his musical instruments through the gates, and he winds up at a detention center. Walter hires an immigration lawyer, himself apparently native born Muslim, who seems a bit indifferent.

Tarek says it is not fair, that he is a victim of international politics like everyone else. We have no way of knowing for sure. The authorities will not budge from enforcing the “rules” in place since 9/11. They make it worse, sneaking Tarek into deportation before the lawyer or his own mother from Michigan can help. What we are left with his how Walter is transformed by his own unquestioning kindness, by meeting the needs presented to him beyond his ability to choose, even beyond family in the usual sense.

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