Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Visitor: Movie Review

I watched the movie 'The Visitor' sometime ago. After this I read some of the review on this movie. They were all glowing tributes. I was impressed but puzzled by some premises in the movie.

My first question on watching it was if there was any political message in reality in the story. It was made in 2007 during the Bush administration, a period in which filmmakers of a liberal political bent created some very good movies. This one, which tells the story of how Tariq, an illegal immigrant from Syria, a political refugee, came to be deported, tugs at our heartstrings for what it means to him, his girlfriend, his mom and his new friend, widower Professor Walter Vale. It tells the story poignantly, but one is left wondering if there really is any strong admonishing for policymakers who tackle immigration, besides the fact that they (and everyone else in the US) need to show kindness to the alien and the refugee among them. Tariq is eventually deported due to existing immigration laws- the movie does signal the need for change in these, but I'm not sure if it is actually arguing for a relook at the policies with regard to political refugees only. Tariq is a political refugee but I think the movie wants to create a case for a relook at all refugees- economic, political and any other kind. I do not think it creates the case. USCIS officials are portrayed as they are in reality, employees who do their job and may not necessarily be aware of the circumstances of every person they deal with. I know this from experience- from trying to get the status updates on petitions for legal immigrants or people awaiting legal immigration status. I have lost money that I paid upfront to this agency and after they acknowledged the receipt of my petitions they simply lost the petitions and dropped the ball. This portrayal is accurate. The bureaucracy is stifling and long overdue for a radical revamp. Beyond this the movie takes no swipe at any administration or laws.

The movie does portray the sad state of those immigrants who are detained. It is almost as if civil liberties do not apply to them. This must engage our attention. Ultimately the thorn is America's side when we talked about our freedoms may be our failure to care for the marginalized, primarily those cannot afford to fight for basic rights. Laws cannot be different for them from those of us who are privileged.

My second question was, who is the 'Visitor' in the movie? Tariq and his girlfriend are illegal squatters in the professor's apartment in the movie. After his initial shock in finding them there (he returns to his New York City apartment after a long gap), he eventually lets them stay on, shows them more than hospitality, becoming their friend and helper, hiring them an attorney to help them in their plight. He too benefits from this relationship, learning how to play the djembe, finding a release from his bereavement from his wife's death. In a scene, the professor takes Tari's mom and girlfriend to Ellis Island. The mom asks him if he's been to the Statue of Liberty before and he says he hasn't. The girlfriend lets him know he and Tariq often went there, and in the boat Tariq liked to jump up and down on seeing the statue, pretending as if he were coming to America for the first time. This begs my question, who is the real visitor. Those who are born into liberty often tend to lose real freedom by keeping themselves from all that is implied by freedom. Tariq and the other refugees though are fully alive to this liberty and through their music, hard work, strong relationships, social intimacy and genuineness, keep its spirit alive. The professor seems to be a newcomer and therefore a visitor to this liberty. He is the one coming into his apartment after a long gap, like a long lost acquaintance. The squatters are about to leave, but the professor shows them kindness.

This may be the movie's lesson. In the end the professor (in a very understated and convincing performance) tries his best but there are limits to his powers of persuasion and influence. Though he fails he has won the hearts of his friends. As a Christian I think the movie encourages us to take a look at what the Bible has to say about this topic. Here are some verses:

Deuteronomy 10:18-19 – “For the Lord your God...loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Deuteronomy 24:17-18 – “Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt...”

Matthew 25:31-46 – “...I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

Ephesians 2:11-22 – “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”

There are reminders in both OT and NT that not only are we to show kindness to aliens, but we ourselves are aliens in this world or have been aliens in another country. There is a sense in which we need to seek liberty by being like aliens, because true liberty does not come from this world.

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