Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Visitor

OK, so, the trailers look pretty hackneyed: An old white man is taught to enjoy life through the transformational power of music by an immigrant young couple of color. A pro-illegal-immigration propaganda fest.

But this written and directed by "The Wire" regular Thomas McCarthy who also wrote and directed the highly enjoyable The Station Agent.

Besides, while the anti-illegal crowd gets to trot out the felons, it's fair for the other side to point out that the mass of immigrants are good people, right?

Anyway, the pre-show buzz at the theater was high. The room was packed and the manager was telling us that the word-of-mouth was so good, The Visitor had been increasing its audience every week. So fore-warned, we entered the theater.

And, lo, we were disappointed.

The Boy said, "I was disappointed. It started good. But sometimes when you put a message in a movie, you screw up the movie. Good acting, though."

I actually hadn't thought of it in those terms--that it was the message screwing up the movie--but he might be right.

Let's start with what's right about this movie. The great character actor Richard Jenkins--whom you know from about a million things--in the role and performance of a lifetime as Watler Vale, an economist who is in extended mourning over his dead wife when he's wrangled into going to New York City for a conference.

Much to his surprise he finds a young couple living in his New York apartment: Tarek (played by Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian musician and his Senegalese wife Zainab (played by the stunning Danai Jekesai Gurira).

The spotlight's on Walter, though, whom we first see in real human contact with others when he agrees to let the couple stay for a while. Tarek is both grateful and gracious, while Zainab is much more suspicious.

The connection is made stronger when Walter sees the drum that Tarek plays and ultimately ends up having Tarek give him lessons. His wife was clearly the source of music in his life, and he fails miserably at the piano, but takes remarkably well to the freer expression of improvised percussion.

This part of the movie sings. It reminds me of another favorite I bring up here a lot: Schultze Gets The Blues, though it doesn't have the same static feel. Schultze's ennui is because, well, he's German, and lived a life in the salt mines. Vale's ennui is clearly brought about by the death of his wife, and his failure to resolve it through finding a new source of music--though the fact that he's an economics professor doesn't help, one supposes.

The grand part of this movie is the way music flows through every part of it. Classical, jazz, percussive jams, even Andrew Lloyd Weber--all inform the experience of the characters.

Then Tarek is picked up by the USCIS. Oh, no! He's illegal! He's detained! He was supposed to have been deported years ago!

Walter hires an immigration attorney, and when Tarek's mother Mouna (played by the lovely Hiam Abbass of Munich and Paradise Now fame), he quickly forms an intense attachment to the widowed woman.

Now, in a Hollywood big budget picture, we all know what has to happen: After a series of exciting court challenges, Mouna and Walter get married, and thus are allowed to keep Tarek in the country while Zainab has an anchor baby.

That would be bad, of course, because it would be nonsense. This is a giant, faceless bureaucracy, answerable to no one and responsive to no one. It's the modern "deus ex machina" where a pissed of Poseidon sinks a ship because someone blinded his son. It is, in effect, shit happening.

No, we know there's not going to be a perfect ending, exactly, but there are various degrees of sub-optimal endings that are possible. I mean, in the stereotype of the art-house flick, Tarek goes back to Syria and gets killed, Walter commits suicide, and the women are sold into slavery.

Or something. There are degrees, and I don't want to give anything away here.

The problem with this is, what had been an engaging movie up to that point comes almost to a dead stop. We're left with the burgeoning relationship between Walter and Mouna, but we're concerned about Tarek, whom we no longer see at that point.

I suspect it's very, very realistic. That does not make it entertaining or engaging. The characters continue to develop, so its not unbearable, but they're frozen. The filmmakers have presented them with an obstacle they are utterly powerless to change.

And maybe that was the message, and so, as the boy said, trying to get it across ruined the movie. Maybe so. There are certain things that, I think, defeat that message if that's really supposed to be the point.

Whatever the reason, though, the end of the movie left the audience in silent contemplation, not rousing applause. Or even quiet applause.

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