After a few years, I decided to give the movie The Visitor (2007) another look. I wrote a post about it back then, though not zeroing in on some stuff I want to mention now. Again, it’s hard to ignore Richard Jenkins’ masterful performance as the actor everyone knows but doesn’t know!
Very briefly, Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a professor in Connecticut, who after the death of his wife is faced with the emptiness of his life—his work (including the book he claims to be working on), his lack of social contact, even his inability to find a musical instrument to play! (But that gets solved.) When he comes to his little-frequented apartment in New York City, he finds Tarek and Zainab, a couple who are living there, and who happen to be undocumented immigrants. Walt and Tarek become friends, but Tarek is arrested by the NYPD and sent to detention. His mother, Mouna, travels to New York to be near her son, and in the process, a relationship with Walter awkwardly unfolds.
In such an understated movie, there are numerous scenes with great power, ranging from the hilarious to the heartbreaking. There are two scenes in particular in which Walter and Mouna become vulnerable to each other.
At dinner after going to see Phantom of the Opera, Walter tells Mouna that he’s taking a semester off from teaching to stay in New York. She knows that it’s because of her situation with her son, Tarek.
MOUNA: This is not your problem, Walter.
It’s OK that you are busy.
WALTER: I’m not busy. Not at all.
Mouna, the truth is I haven’t been doing any work for a long time.
MOUNA: You just presented your paper at the conference.
WALTER: I didn’t even write it. I just read it.
I’ve been teaching the same course for twenty years.
It doesn’t mean anything to me. None of it does.
I pretend. I pretend that I’m busy. That I’m writing. Working.
But I’m not doing anything.
In the middle of the night, after the play and dinner, Mouna confesses to Walter she threw away Tarek’s deportation notice.
MOUNA: It's my fault. What happened to Tarek.
I did receive the letter telling us to leave.
I threw it away. I never told him.
We were here for three years by the time the letter arrived.
I had found a job. Tarek was in school.
Everyone told me not to worry. That the government did not care.
And it appeared to be true. And then, after time, you forget.
You think that you really belong.
I don’t want to get political, just as director Tom McCarthy said in interviews that he wasn’t trying to be political, but it’s hard to ignore the implications of those lines, “I pretend,” and especially “You think that you really belong.” We’re in a presidential campaign in which real-life human beings are genuinely terrified that they will be deported to places of violence and darkness. That’s a message which resonates with those who fear the changes our country is going through. And that fuels the feeling which says there are many Americans who don’t “look like” they belong here.
But this story is about so much more than politics. It is, at the end of the day, learning that being a “visitor” isn’t such a bad thing! In a sense, we all are visitors.
And it’s also about learning to play the djembe.