The Visitor was on cable this weekend. I love this movie. I love it so much that two of the characters in my novel go to see it on one of their first dates (and then spar about it).
I saw it for the first time a couple of years ago, at home. But it was on a sort of large screen. And there were snacks. There were also little kids, even though the movie was PG-13.
(Of course, we are the parents who accidentally watched Open Water with our children. SPOILER ALERT: I assumed, naturally, that Open Water would have to end well: "If they are telling the story," I said, "the scuba divers have to be rescued. Because the person telling the story had to know what happened to them." Um, yeah. No.)
The basic premise of The Visitor: A burned out, tightly wound professor named Walter Vale goes to NYC for a conference and finds a young couple, Tarek and Zainab, living in the apartment he keeps there. Walter rarely uses the apartment, and someone illegally rented it to the couple. After some awkward moments, Tarek and Zainab apologize and pack their things.
In the only part of the movie that seemed like a stretch, Walter allows them to stay. But then again, Walter's wife has died, he is bored, his efforts to learn piano have failed miserably (his wife was a pianist), and he is ghost walking through his life. He becomes intrigued by Tarek's djembe, an African drum. Tarek teaches Walter to play the drum, and they become friends.
Eventually, Tarek is arrested and we find out that both Tarek and Zainab are illegal immigrants, from Syria and Senegal, respectively. What follows is a glimpse into the detention process for illegal aliens, particularly for Arabs and Muslims after 9/11.
Haaz Sleiman is fantastic as Tarek. My only complaint was that his portrayal was so over-the-top friendly. The New York Times review noted the excessive friendliness, too, without speculating on the reason for it. Here's mine: To me, it seemed as if someone -- the writer, the actor, the director -- felt that as the Arab guy, he had to be perfect to be likable. But when the media has made monsters out of you, imputing the behavior of the few to the millions, I guess I can understand the instinct to overcompensate. Consider the slack cut.
Hiam Abass, an Israeli Arab, was amazing as Tarek's mother. Mouna. Her portrayal was so spot on that I felt as though I knew her character from somewhere. She was elegant and strong and beautiful.
Besides the major themes, the movie touches on a host of sensitive issues. For example, when Mouna first sees Zainab, she comments on how "black" she is. Zainab doesn't drink, but Tarek does -- he jokes that Zainab is the "good" Muslim. When Mouna asks Tarek's Muslim American lawyer where he is from, he looks at her and says, "Queens."
It is a gentle prodding of stereotypes without a full, preachy diatribe.
The New York Times says, "The curious thing about The Visitor is that even as it goes more or less where you think it will, it still manages to surprise you along the way."
That's just it. Is the ending predictable? Yes, essentially.
And yet I was riveted until the very end.