The Visitor (2007), directed by Thomas McCarthy

When my wife, of blessed memory, passed away over 20 years ago, I felt totally lost. It was hard for me to imagine living without her. There was a temptation to withdraw from society, to seek solace in memories and to immerse oneself in work to dull the emotional pain. However, the Torah has a different view of the aftermath of losing a beloved spouse. While it is impossible to recreate the past, the Bible clearly tells us it is not good for man to be alone. Life is meant to be shared and the Talmud openly instructs the surviving spouse to remarry even into one’s old age. To be alone as the years advance is not what God wants. The Visitor reminds us of the emptiness of living alone and suggests the remedies that can keep us engaged in life.

The Visitor is the story of Walter Vale, a disillusioned college professor who has recently lost his beloved wife of many years. Since her death he has become even more reclusive than before and solitude is his preferred state. His quiet and predictable world unravels, however, when two illegal immigrants, a white male from Syria and a black woman from Senegal, mistakenly take up residence in his Manhattan apartment. At first he wants them to leave, but recognizing their vulnerability in being sent out at night to find new lodgings, he invites them to stay. Their sojourn in his apartment lasts many days during which a deep friendship grows between him and his tenants.

Walter develops an interest in hand drumming, which is recognized by his tenant Tarek , a Syrian immigrant who is an accomplished drummer. Tarek teaches Walter some techniques which enable him to play the djembe reasonably well. This interest is drumming captivates Walter, indirectly propelling him towards more human connections. He plays with a drum circle in Central Park and shares the rhythms with people of varied cultures. The drum represents a kind of communal heartbeat which links all men together, and Walter breaks out of his aloneness to join the family of mankind.

The story takes a tragic turn when Tarek is picked up by the police and is placed in a Queens detention center. Tarek’s mother comes from Michigan to visit his son in New York since she has not heard from him in a while. When she discovers that he is incarcerated and may be deported, Walter intervenes and hires an immigration lawyer to help. In spite of his best efforts, Tarek is deported, and his mother decides to leave the States to go to Syria to be with her son. Although Tarek is likely to have a grim future, Walter has been transformed by his friendship with Tarek, Zainab,  and Tarek’s mother. He has moved from being a solitary man to a man who wants to connect with other people. The last scene of the film depicts Walter in an underground subway station playing the djembe, making a very loud drum sound, which metaphorically expresses Walter’s new heartfelt approach to life.

Our Sages tell us “not to separate from the community (Avot 2:5).” It is spiritually dangerous to be alone. Solitude can lead to depression and an unhealthy preoccupation with oneself. Therefore, it is good to be involved with others and to feel the distress of others; for one who feels another’s pain shares it with him and, in a sense, lessens the emotional burden of the sufferer. Walter’s attempt to help another makes him into a better man, a man who is alive to himself and to others. Moreover, the Torah tells us in many places to take care of the stranger, the one who is most defenseless in society, for we were once strangers in the land as well. This empathy for the outsider is a hallmark of a Torah personality; and Walter, a very decent man, becomes an even better man when he understands the plight of the stranger and does something to alleviate the stranger’s problem. By helping others, he helps himself.

Purchase a copy of this movie from Amazon.

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