Visitor, The (2008)

Rated: PG-13 for brief strong language.
Length: 104 minutes
Grade: BB+AB+=B+
Budget: $4 million
Box Office: $17 million (9 U.S., 8 Intl.)

Written and Directed by: Thomas McCarthy (Mostly an actor, who wrote and directed The Station Agent and helped write Up)
Starring: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Jekesai Gurira, and Hiam Abbass.

When a stiff, white economics professor inadvertently discovers two illegal immigrants living in his city apartment, he befriends them and learns to play music from the man. He then learns what life is like for illegal aliens when his new friend is mistakenly arrested for a minor offense and threatened with deportation and separation from his life and family.

Entertainment Value: B
Richard Jenkins was nominated for best actor for his performance here, and rightly so, although Sean Penn, Mickey Rourke, Frank Langella, and Brad Pitt were certainly stiff competition in 2008. The story is plausible, although it leaves me wondering just how typical such events are. Most of all, the characters are truly endearing, which of course is the purpose of this movie.

Superficial Content: B+
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A-, Violence A-, Language C
There are some relational moments with hinted-at sexuality. Violence is almost non-existent, just the arrest of a man for apparently jumping a subway turnstile. The language justifies the PG-13, although it is neither gratuitous nor heavy. PG-13 is probably right, and no kids would care to watch this movie anyhow because of the pace and the adult themes involved. This could almost be rated PG in spite of the language.

Significant Content: A
In part, this is trying to show the inhumanity of our immigration rules and enforcement. But in part, it’s also showing the tremendous benefits of encountering people from cultures drastically different from our own. Aliens are people too, and if we would just get to know them, our views might very well change. Music and a vibrant love of life can transform another person, especially if he feels his life is meaningless.

Artistic/Thought Value: B+
This is a movie that people with strong anti-illegal immigrant views won’t want to watch precisely because it forces you to look at the particular details of real life for aliens in the US. In the end, what it primarily invites you to consider is what it would be like if you had your life ripped from you by these rules. And it does this in a very endearing and painful way. This is not a pleasant film to watch, bittersweet at best, but it definitely humanizes a debate which all too often looks at numbers and abstract principles rather than concrete human circumstances.

Discussion Questions:
~What were your views about immigration issues in this country before you watched this movie? Have they shifted at all as a result of this story? Did you ever find yourself resisting what this movie wanted to make you feel because you knew it would create tension with your political views? Do you think it’s unfair to ask people to encounter emotions like this about such a controversial issue? ~What makes emotional persuasion so powerful? How do you refute something like this? What if a movie were made of equal quality portraying the life of a victim of some horrible crime committed by an illegal alien in this country?
~How typical do you think Tarek’s story is? To what degree would you say that his circumstances are his fault or the fault of a system he happens to be in? If you were put in charge of his case, what would you do?
~What is this movie trying to tell us in the way it portrays the changes in Tarek from the time he is put in the detention center to his later demeanor? Does our immigration system tend to make people into the sort of people it claims it needs to protect us from?
~Have you ever known an illegal alien? Would you feel obligated to report someone to the authorities if you thought he was one? Would you want to get to know him as a person?
~Showing hospitality to strangers and foreigners is a major theme in the Bible and in Mediterranean culture. Do American immigration laws take this perspective seriously enough? Do Americans?
~Is Walter angry about the injustice of Tarek’s treatment because he hates to see his country do such things that violate his sense of rightness, or is he more affected because he is threatened with losing a friend who has been so beneficial to him coming back to life after the loss of his wife? Is he selfish in his concerns or loving in them?
~Is it fair to say that Walter takes his freedoms for granted, whereas the others do not? What does the Statue of Liberty have to do with that idea? What freedoms of yours are you not grateful enough for?
~Why does this movie choose a participant in a globalization conference as the guy who discovers aliens living in his apartment?
~What does music in this movie symbolize? How does it change Walter? Could Walter have gained all the perspective he gained about life in this movie without the people happening to be illegal aliens?
~What do you think life would be like in this country if you were someone like Tarek or Zainab?
Does this movie make you upset that the immigration system seems so heartless or do you feel like it is being inaccurately portrayed?
~Discuss some of the ways in which Walter shows love to others in this movie. If you did not know his religious beliefs, would you presume him to be a Christian?

Overall Grade: B+
It’s not a movie you will necessarily enjoy, but it is a movie well worth your attention. It’s frustrating, and that’s the gift it’s trying to give you.

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