Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Toledo International Film Festival: "The Visitor" and "English Vinglish"

Movie poster, yahoo, shows Walter drumming 
at a NYC subway station, and photos of Tarek,
his girlfriend, his mother Mouna.
The International Film Festival had a great third Saturday night at the Ohio Theatre with two interestng films, The Visitor (writtenand directed by Thomas McCarthy) and English Vinglish (written and directed by Gauri Shinda).

They are very different movies, one featuring a bored, emotionally stuck professor who crosses paths with an unexpected visitor from Syria, and the other a vibrant Indian homemaker who wants to learn English, and does.

As different as these movies are in sound, setting and cinematography, they are also similar.

Both movies wrap around issues of immigration and identity. Both explore the unexpected curves life throws us, the twists and turns, and illuminate how ordinary people respond to them. Both affirm the triumph of the human spirit against the odds, although one ends without resolution and the other with a happy ending.

In The Visitor, a bored economics professor, Walter Vale (played by Richard Jenkins with remarkable restraint and depth), has lost his wife, a classical pianist, his sense of purpose, his motivation to do anything worthwhile. He has taught the same course for 20 years (changing nothing but the date on his syllabus), demeans his students, cannot finish his 4th book, wallows in a self-absorbed life without meaning. "I do nothing," he says.  

On a trip to his New York City apartment (he's in the city for a conference he did not want to attend), Walter encounters a young immigrant couple, Tarak from Syria and his girlfriend Zainat from Senegal. They are in America illegally, which complicates their lives.

The encounter changes the trajectory of Walter's life, as does an unexpected visitor, Tarek's mother Mouna.   Mouna is a talented and elegant woman, also in America illegally (she didn't file the correct refugee status forms), and is cautiously living in Michigan.  "Cautiously" because the lives of immigrants, especially illegal immigrants without proper papers, is precarious at best.  This is the heart of the story.  Mouna's life is a series of emotional setbacks, death (her journalist husband was killed in Syria), and waiting. Waiting for life to come to her. Waiting for something to happen.

The actress Hiam Abbass, from Palestine, plays Mouna with quiet beauty, dignity, and deep emotion.  Mouna's natural joi de vivre, long suppressed, emerges when Walter takes her to see The Phantom of the Opera.  It is lovely to see her joy, because we understand it is so fleeting.

It is the same with Walter, who brightens a little bit as he interacts with Mouna, or when he plays the drum, which her son taught him.  I love the scenes where Walter joins Tarek, so bright and hopeful, and other drummers in Central Park, and really gets into it. Tiny sparks in an otherwise bland life.  Upbeat moments, some inner release, in the depressed lives of the marginalized.  The transforming power of art and music.

Nothing explodes outwardly in this movie. The inner explosions are another matter. We feel them.

Walter's life inevitably becomes more entwined with Mouna's as they share a common purpose: saving Tarek, who is falsely arrested and taken to a god-forsaken detention center in Queens.  The faded nondescript rectangular building and the unfeeling bureaucrats who run the place signal nothing but despair. Under the circumstances, a matter of life and death, I can't imagine interacting with such unfeeling bureaucrats without exploding in rage.

But Walter doesn't explode.  He grinds in agony within. Tarek faces imminent deportation, the biggest fear of refugees fleeing Middle East war zones. Walter shares Mouna's sense of desperation and helplessness. But he doesn't give up.

There's no preaching in this movie.  It just tells the story. Neither Walter nor Tarek's mother, nor a worthless lawyer, can save Tarek.  He is summarily deported, without due process, without warning.  Mouna decides to return to Syria to look for her son, the future unknown, anxiety-ridden. The heartfelt moments between Walter and Mouna, a love that unfolds softly, come to an end.

Walter expresses his rage and sadness in the only way he knows how, the way Tarek taught him: playing the drums.  Drumming has become the outlet for Walter's inner turmoil. And for the first time we do see it explode.  We watch Walter walk with determination, his drum over his shoulder, to a New York metro station.  We see him set up his drum.  He starts drumming, alone on the subway platform. Drumming furiously.  It was something Tarek had said he wanted to do some day, but fear, caution, held him back.   Now Walter plays with abandon, full of sound and fury, signifying loss, heartbreak. He becomes the voice of Tarek and Mouna.

Will Walter be able to pick himself up and go on? Will he be able to take the new path that rose up from the humdrum of his former life?  Has he found a new purpose? Will Mouna and her son survive in Syria? We don't know.

Movie poster yahoo
English Vinglis is a colorful contrast to the noir aspects of The Visitor.  It's a delightful take on the role of  an Indian homemaker, Shashi Godbale, played by the beautiful Sridevi.  She embodies the lives of middle-class married women in India, with a successful husband, Satish, and their two lively children.

Shashi is known for her laddoos, a delicious Indian dessert, which she lovingly makes and sells from her home.  She is proud of her cooking ability and her home business, but she is taken for granted. Her role is not valued.  She is just doing women's work.  To add insult to injury, her husband and teen daughter tease her about her poor English.  Any of us who have a hard time learning foreign languages can empathize with her frustation.

It looks like Shashi is stuck in the role of unappreciated housewife and mother with no way out.  Only when she goes to America to help her sister plan her daughter's wedding does Shashi's life turn around.  An unexpected twist.  Her initial reluctance to leave her family and go to a strange place alone is the beginning of a journey of self-discovery.

While adapting to her new environment in New York, such a different slice of life from that in The Visitor, she surreptiously joins an English class (using profits from her laddoo business). She learns to navigate the big city, despite difficult encounters, despite her fears.  She makes friends and is regarded as a talented woman, indeed an envied "entrepreneur," among her classmates, who are a colorful cast of characters including a French chef who falls in love with her. All Shashi's new experiences help her gain in self-confidence.

This movie has an upbeat international flavor.  It's the opposite of bland, which overlays The Visitor.   Shashi's beautiful saris alone add color and spice. The Indian family and the American fiance; the English-language class of adult students from around the world who want to better their lives (all played beautifully);  the cafes and street life of the city; they all portray the mosaic of cultures, the cultural stew, that is America at its finest.  It's an America that embraces differences, uncomplicated and unafraid. Shashi is the messanger.

The movie culminates in what can be only be called "A Big Fat Indian Wedding," when Shashi's niece marries her American fiance. Although Shashi has to choose between her laddoo-making for the wedding and her final test for her English class, it turns out she can do both.  She answers to the pull of tradition and rises up to meet the need for self-expression and personal growth.

Optimism prevails.  The wedding scenes are full of the colors, sounds and traditions of India, everyone participating, including Shashi's English class.  The costumes are great in these scenes. Shashi's toast, presented in English, sums up the meaning of  her experience in America, and in the process she earns her English diploma with distinction.

This is a Bollywood hit with an upbeat message for women in an international context.  Shashi achieves the respect she wants from her family, and returns to India a more self-assured woman.  The appreciative audience gets a happy ending.

I look forward to the last movie in the Toledo International Film Festival next Saturday, February 7, at the Ohio Theatre at 5:00 pm.  It will feature  the movie "Dreams," by writer and director Akira Kurosawa.  The previews promise another eye-opening experience.

Ohio Theatre
419/720-8952 or 419/255-8406, ext 305
3106 Legrange Street, Toledo

Thanks to the Ohio Theaetre, Welcome Toledo-Lucas County, and United North, the sponsors of the first Toledo International Film Festival. Thanks also to Deepam India restaurant for the wonderful Indian food at the showing of these movies!

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