BY CHRIS SZABLA
The reign of the studio indies has ended, a recent New York Times article solemnly declared. After an exciting year of quiet thought-piece films, Hollywood executives have decided to pull the plug on their foray into the festival circuit. So what killed this noble experiment? Well, there were only so many Palme D’Ors or Golden Bears to go around, for one, but the real trouble may have been a lack of original ideas.
Quick: how many films out over the last year featured brilliant yet socially-inept academics whose encounters with beautiful women helped lighten their despondent, moribund views on life and restore their sense of possibility? Well, there was Dennis Quaid in Smart People, Ben Kingsley in Elegy, and everything in between, including The Visitor, which one could be forgiven for passing over in this veritable sea of meditations on professorial re-pubescence.
But it turns out that The Visitor has both more to say on the subjects the other films touch – love, longing – as on one they don’t – politics. Though it was hardly advertised as such – it was hardly advertised at all – The Visitor must be one of few films ever to assert that a call to conscience can be just as potent an antidote to midlife crisis as sexual abandon.
To set the stage: short, balding econ professor Walter Vale has been treading water since the death of his wife, regurgitating syllabi and callously failing genuinely troubled students. Only when offered no other choice does he agree to the seemingly insufferable task of packing his Volvo for the trek from Connecticut College to Manhattan, where he is charged with presenting, vicariously, a colleague’s paper.
For whatever reason, Vale has a New York pied-a-terre, and for whatever reason, he finds that it’s been re-rented to a contentious but devoted Syrio-Senegalese couple, Tarek and Zainab. Perhaps for lack of any other company, Vale lets them stay. Cue the sun breaking through the clouds of the lonely economist’s life; an incipient friendship with Tarek, a djembe musician, leads to Vale’s newfound appreciation for the drum.
Conveniently enough, this serves as our introduction to Vale’s life-affirming engagement with Manhattan multiculturalism; its outdoor drum circles the perfect foil to the antiseptic sterility of anonymous conference rooms and dry, dull discussions about development. Inconveniently enough, New York’s subway turnstiles turn out to have not exactly been designed for big, African drums. Tarek gets caught in one and hops the barrier – in front, as it turns out, of two unamused policemen.
Over Vale’s protests, Tarek is arrested, and the NYCLU is nowhere in sight. This is a problem, because Tarek has no ID, and is quickly assumed to be in the country illegally. From here on, the entire film feels like an extended commentary on post-9/11 immigration policy. Tarek is moved from one unmarked detention facility to another as Vale is left to manage the tensions between Zainab and Tarek’s tenacious mother, Mouna, who has swept into town as soon as she realizes what has happened. Some sparks fly between Vale and Mouna, but it says a lot about the film’s focus that the closest they ever come is an extended hug.
Galvanized with purpose, Vale hires a lawyer, abandons what is left of his academic career, and prepares to fight for Tarek. Still, the behind-the-scenes legal rigamarole is well beyond his control: although Mouna admits they are illegal immigrants, this fact hardly appears to vindicate Tarek’s treatment, as we bear witness to the bizarre, Kafkaesque aura of mystery that pervades every decision made by the far-off, faceless government. Mouna provides some uncannily critical context: the episode reminds her of when, in Syria, her dissident husband was silenced by a similarly secretive incarceration.
The Visitor ends with a scene as ambiguously suggestive as the film’s title. Vale sits poised on a subway platform, pounding away at his drum. It is a triumph of self-expression, but one is forced to wonder whether one ought to consider the cost of Vale’s awakening. For The Visitor leaves us with at least one profound notion: that from Vale’s return to Manhattan to the strangers he finds in his apartment to his entry into New York’s street music culture, we are all visitors in each others’ lives. And our reception of aliens into our homes, like the laws governing who enters our country, may determine whether we are fortunate enough to be graced by their talents – or arbitrarily deprived of them.