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The Visitor, Thomas McCarthy (2007)

Rats, I saw this some time ago and wrote some notes but now I can’t find them. So an experiment in discovering what sticks. A sad sack college professor, newly a widower, goes to NYC for a conference, and discovers a Syrian man and his Senegalese girlfriend living in the pied-à-terre he’s owned for years but visits rarely. The couple have been scammed by a duplicitous real estate agent, to whom they’ve been paying rent. Professor of course kicks them out, but then feels bad and goes to find them and tells them they can stay until they find a new place. Then, predictably, in return, they teach him how to live for the moment, play exotic instruments, eat new foods, not fall prey to stereotypical assumptions (e.g., the African turns out to be the strict Muslim and the Syrian isn’t). Then the Syrian is stopped by the police for jumping a turnstile in the subway (he didn’t, of course: he was just trying (metaphorically) to get himself and his big native drum through the turnstile), and he’s sent to a detention facility to await deportation. His mother arrives from Detroit and stays with the professor. They try to get the kid out but guess what, the INS has heard it all before. The professor is bewildered that he can’t get his way even though he’s white and rich. The mother flies off to Syria to be with her son after he’s deported. The professor sells the piano he’s tried to learn and hated for years and gets into jamming in the Washington Square drum circles.

Ain’t that a tidy story? It’s the professor that does all the learning, get it? While there are some sweet, sensitive, and intelligent performances here, and the script itself is chockablock with subtle and genuinely moving moments, the overall rhetorical arc of the story is fairly disgusting. The besieged, belittled, terrified, and terrorized immigrant characters exist here only insofar as they are crucial to the professor’s education. The truly radical move here would have been to make the Syrian the main character, and the professor his narrative foil, instead of vice-versa. But that movie would never have been made.

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