"The Visitor": A Gentle Protest By Gyözö Mátyás

in 27th Istanbul International Film Festival

by Gyözö Mátyás

Sometimes in everyday life we don’t even recognize how cruel, unjust and rude we can be to other people, to the extent that this mentality already hurts others human rights. There are probably no greater burning issues in society than that of human rights: the range spreads from the soft differentiation between people by race, gender and ethnic origin and it can end up with violent crimes against humanity.

And there is the complicated aspect of the problem that diverging cultures, varying political systems conceive the meaning and relevance of human rights very differently. What people living in a society sensitive of human rights can consider the ponderous injury of human rights elsewhere and belong to the ‘normal’ mechanism of life. And the latter fact shows more than anything else how important is the problem of human rights for humanity.

So it is not by accident that the organizers of the International Istanbul Film Festival set up a separate section for competing films with the label of human rights. In this section of the competition those films have taken part which focused on the theme with special efforts and importance. At this point we have to notice that such an initiative is not the least without risk — concerning the artistic aspects and elements of the works to be screened. In spite of all the good intentions and respectful objectives it can easily occur that the piece of art proves to be more or less flat propaganda or didactic thesis.

Thomas McCarthy’s film The Visitor successfully avoids these dangers. This film concentrates on the problems of human rights in a way that it sets to the front the ethnic, social, and in a transgressing form, even the political components of the theme, while accomplishing to express it in a subtle, aesthetically refined way. The Visitor is simultaneously a very effective, emotionally shaking and artistically delicate movie. The reason why it could be so is the method chosen by the authors of the work which focuses on the humanistic aspects of the whole conflict. And within it they were able to separate different kinds of human responses to the question of human rights.

Walter Vale, a not too successful university teacher who — probably for the sake of change due to being bored by his monotonous activity — is trying desperately to learn playing the classical piano. One day he is sent to a conference in Manhattan and he finds that in his recently owned apartment a couple has taken up residence. Tarek is from Syria, Zainab from Senegal and they are staying in the States illegally. Walter reluctantly allows them to stay in his apartment. And he, who has no exciting and upsetting experiences in his life, has to familiarize himself with a quite different dimension of human existence. Our heroes progressively start to sympathize with one another. Walter — instead of piano — is being taught to play the percussion by Tarek, and deep inside the prejudices and fears start to disperse.

Tarek, who has no documents, is arrested and Walter has to experience through the eyes of an immigrant the post-9/11 neurotic and dreadful atmosphere in the USA. But — and it needs no special explanation — concerning national security this precautious and suspicious attitude is totally understandable. (The film is building up a sophisticated balance from this aspect by introducing other immigrant figures who have got hostile inclinations towards their adoptive country.)

But this film does not want to look upon the world from the militaristic or strategic viewpoint; this film is first of all about human relationships. And through these troubles Walter gains a promising perspective. As he meets Tarek’s mother, a very gentle connection starts flourishing between them as she shows such a dignity that exerts a great influence on the disillusioned Walter. This meeting has come almost as the last chance for someone who is already bored with the routine of his work and has lost the passion for teaching. No more does Walter want to pretend that what he is doing is something important. That is why this accidental meeting could mean some redemption and at last things haven’t turned out for good. Probably there had never previously been any real chance for it.

The Visitor is a marvelous gentle protest against the senseless, irrational relations and conditions of life in the name of dignity and human nobility.