Monday, February 16, 2009

The Visitor -- music and relationships

Director: Thomas McCarthy, 2008.

What would you do if you walked into your apartment and found a young couple living there? This is the question that faces Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) in this low-budget but big-hearted movie.

Walter is an economics professor in a Connecticut university. A widower, he has lost his zest for life and is simply going through the motions. He is teaching just one class while he "writes his new book" but he is a zombie walking through his life with eyes closed. When his co-author cannot go down to New York City to read an academic paper, Walter has to go. Reluctantly he agrees. But when he gets to his rarely used apartment in the Big Apple he finds a strange black woman and middle-eastern man there. Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira) thought they were renting but had been duped. this unexpected meeting, Walter allows them to stay in his apartment while they search for their own and a friendship begins. Walter is a very private person and at first he is content to live with brief interactions. But when he comes home to find Tarek in his tighty whiteys playing the African drum Walter's defenses come down. He is captivated by this instrument, and Tarek teaches him to play it. In doing so, he is really teaching him to reconnect with life. As he begins to practice playing this drum, Walter finds rhythm and purpose. Playing together in the apartment there is a sense of grace, of relating even without words. a beautiful scene, Tarek meets Walter and they go to Central Park where other drummers gather to make music together. Tarek sits and plays, but Walter is reluctant. Perhaps fearful of inadequate talent, shy and reserved Walter stands on the periphery with the crowd of observers. But his feet are tapping and his hands want to be playing. With some urging from Tarek Walter steps in and begins to play. He is the only white man in this circle of musicians, but he is no longer worried, no longer self-conscious. He is lost in the joy and simple pleasure of making music. Skin color and gender are irrelevant. The beat and the music are central.

Indeed, one of the themes of The Visitor is music. Music is a language. Music has the power to divide, but it also has the power to unite, to calm, to soothe. In the Old Testament, Saul, king of the Israelites, would have David play the harp to soothe him when he was troubled (1 Sam. 16:23). Here, music is the medium for Walter and Tarek to form the bond of friendship. It lubricated the relational gears that had grown rusty in Walter's life.

But just as the relationship is growing, Tarek is arrested. It is a misunderstanding, but he is an illegal immigrant, in the United States without papers or permission. The second half of the film deals with this issue. Tarek's mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass), a Syrian living in the mid-West, shows up on Walter's doorstep, new problems and new opportunities arise. With his college colleagues pressuring him to return to Connecticut and Mouna needing help, Walter has some tough choices to make. But this is a new Walter, one who has awakened from a long sleep.

The issue of illegal immigration takes center stage but is a little heavy-handed and political. There is an agenda at-hand now, in this movie. Writer-director McCarthy makes it clear that it is not black and white. The immigrants are not all terrorists. Most simply want somewhere to live and are willing to work to build a future. Yet, the law has been broken. There is a balance, but McCarthy comes down clearly on the side of those trapped in bureaucratic middle of the detention centers. Some of the scenes and their dialog do sound a little preachy. Yet, the bigger picture is that of the effect of Tarek's incarceration on Walter. And when Walter finally cries out, "It's not fair!" he is acting like a little kid -- full of emotion and passion. This is the new Walter!

One of the delights of this movie is the acting, particularly of Richard Jenkins. A veteran actor of 30 years, most recently seen as a support in Burn After Reading, he is superb here in his first starring role. He gives an understated performance that has earned him several awards already and an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Using very few words but plenty of subtle gestures and mannerisms, he communicates the sadness and pathos of a man lost and alone even in the midst of a bustling city.

The opening scene, where Walter is seen from behind looking out a window in his neat but cold Connecticut home, waiting for his piano teacher, sets the tone of his alienation. And his piano teacher exacerbates this alienation. Old and critical, she tells him he is too old to learn and has no natural talent. It is no wonder he is withdrawn. Contrast her to Tarek. He is warm-hearted and encouraging, telling Walter he can learn to play the drum. As the piano teacher creates a chasm, Tarek builds a bridge. The power of a kind word and the potency of encouragement are twin towers of motivation we all need to use more often.

Ultimately The Visitor is a story of relational redemption. Christianity Today named this film second overall in their list of top 10 most redemptive movies of 2008 and it is clear why. Walter needed friends, relationships. He did not have that at work or at home. He found it in Tarek, and again in Mouna. The Bible makes it clear that no man is an island; we are to live in relationship with others. In fact, the New Testament is replete with "one anothers": live in harmony with one another (Rom. 12:16); love one another (Jn. 13:34); serve one another (Gal. 5:13); honor one another (Rom. 12:10); instruct one another (Rom. 15:14); submit to one another (Eph. 5:21); encourage one another (Heb. 3:13), etc. We can only do this if we are connected to those in our circle of influence.

In this 21st century world of connectedness, where our laptops, our cell phones, even our iPods are connected to the web, perhaps it's time to unplug and disconnect from technology and reconnect with humanity. Relational connection is everything!

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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