13 July 2008

A Savage City, Yet It Had Such Tenderness

I feel that I have been rather neglectful, lately, of my non-resolution to go to the cinema more often this year, mainly because I haven't been around very much over the past few weeks, although it's also true that there haven't been many films on that I wanted to see (other than the reissue of Jules et Jim that I am really annoyed to have missed, especially as none of the shops in Nowheresville seem to sell the DVD - not even Fopp and they are usually very good at stocking foreign films and other reissues that are currently playing at the Arts cinema).

This week, the roster is looking more promising and I went to see The Visitor this afternoon. The cinema was absolutely packed - I hadn't realised the film was going to be so popular but then it only opened yesterday. I wasn't convinced that I was going to like it based on the description on the Arts's website and I hadn't read any reviews (I prefer to go in with a blank slate) but it was set in New York, which pushed me over the edge. I was pleasantly surprised because it was sweet and touching without ever being too maudlin, as well as having moments of comedy and tension and with some good performances from the lead actors, none of whom I'd heard of.

Walter is a widowed professor at Yale Connecticut College and he seems to have lost his way a little since the death of his wife, a celebrated pianist. He is trying to learn the piano himself, presumably to try to feel some connection to the wife, but isn't doing very well and dismisses his fourth teacher in a row after another bad lesson. He is cold with and unmoved by the students in the one class he teaches and doesn't seem to have contributed much to the latest academic paper he has co-authored. However, when the other author goes into labour, Walter is (grudgingly) sent to a conference at NYU to present the paper himself.

Luckily, he has a nice apartment in Manhattan (as well as the huge Connecticut mansion, which is his main residence) and even more luckily, he appears not to need to sub-let it, even though he hasn't been there in months. That's odd, though: there are fresh flowers in the vase on the table and - oh shit! - there is a woman in the bath! It turns out that a young, immigrant couple have been living in the apartment for about a month after it was rented to them by someone called Ivan, whom Walter doesn't know.

After initially attacking Walter, assuming he was an intruder, the couple are very apologetic and timid and pack their things and leave right away but they accidentally leave behind a cute photo of the two of them. Walter sees them at a store across the road and hurries over to return the photo, only to discover that they don't really have anywhere else to stay and he offers to let them stay at the apartment for a few days, until they find somewhere else. Very proud, the two initially refuse but eventually accept and soon he is enjoying Zainab's (the woman's) Senegalese cooking and going to Tarek's djembe gigs.

Walter and Tarek bond and before long, Tarek is teaching Walter to play the djembe, which he seems to pick up much more quickly than the piano. Slowly, Walter's coldness and efforts to distance himself from the world begin to break down and he and Tarek each have a lot to learn from the other. But, after taking Walter to play the drums with a big crew in Central Park one day, they catch the subway back home and the big drums lead to Tarek getting stuck in the turnstile andpushing his way through. Along come the cops, who take Tarek off to the station, even though Walter asserts that Tarek has done nothing wrong. Later, Zainab reveals that actually, she and Tarek aren't exactly legal hence big oh noes and, indeed, Tarek is taken off to a detention centre.

Zainab, who never really gelled so well with Walter, moves out and goes to stay with a cousin but Walter can't switch off and motivate himself to care about his old life - the one where he was barely teaching, barely researching, barely even writing his book; barely living, in fact. And no, he isn't going to go and jack all of that in to go and play the djembe in the park all day long but his encounters with Tarek and Zainab certainly give Walter something to think about - especially given that his research seems to be on global development policy, where it's clear he has spent many years thinking about these issues on a global level but without ever thinking about what they mean for the individuals they affect.

Obviously, the film raises wider issues of what it means to be a citizen - an American or a New Yorker, even - and whether immigration policies (particularly post-9/11) are sensible or fair (clearly, the movie comes down more strongly on one side than the other here). However, the relationship between Walter and Tarek is interesting and powerful even when considered separately from this perspective. Tarek is the younger of the two but seems to have an old soul; he knows what makes him happy and appears to appreciate the things that matter most in life. He teaches Walter to be open to new experiences and not to follow, automatically, the path most travelled. There is, of course, plenty of time for Walter to repay this, especially after Tarek's mother comes to the city from her home in Michigan.

Some scenes are quite awkward - especially those between Walter and Zainab but the awkwardness i well acted and generally has a hint of humour rather than cringeworthiness. In all, a thoughtful and thought-provoking film, which is, by turns, poignant and funny, serious and sweet.

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