February 9, 2009

Connection in an Isolating Age

One of my favorite parts of President Obama's inaugural address was when he said: "As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake." That " our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint."

The film The Visitor starts out with a basic premise, a common story about someone who has become disinterested in life, just going through the motions of working and living. Walter Vale is a widowed college professor from Connecticut with an absent son. His life is turned on its head when he begrudgingly goes to New York City for a conference and finds two illegal immigrants living in his apartment. The film then becomes a story about finding one's purpose. It makes a statement on human rights and how the country built by immigrants has become anti-immigrant. But it is ultimately about reconnecting with one's humanity and with other humans.

Richard Jenkins gives an understated, elegant and well-deserved Academy Award-nominated performance as the writer/professor. His passion for life is re-ignited by his dealings with Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira) and Tarek's mother Mouna (again beautifully underplayed by Hiam Abbass). Tarek plays the djembe in a jazz club, and classical music-loving Walter aspires to become a drummer himself. Professor Vale becomes embroiled in his friends' problems with Immigration. You have to see the film for yourself to see its bittersweet resolution. My dilemma as a viewer was the fairness or unfairness of it all: the government has to do its job in a post-9-11 world, and yet being an immigrant myself, I felt for these people who had come to this country for the promise of a better life.

Coming from Tom McCarthy, director of the outstanding The Station Agent, The Visitor is quietly sentimental, inspiring, surprisingly funny; political yet restrained. I love percussion instruments, and especially enjoyed the drum-playing scenes. The final puzzle is figuring out who the titular Visitor is. Is it us becoming mere visitors in our lives? Instead of being fully alive and proactive? Or is it the people we meet who change our lives, in big or small ways?

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