Therapeutic Movie Review
By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT
Director: Tom McCarthy
Producers: Mary Jane Skalski, Michael London
Screenwriter: Tom McCarthy
Cast: Richard Jenkins, Hiam Abbass, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira, Marian Seldes, Richard Kind, Michael Cumpsty, Maggie Moore, Bill McHenry, Tzahi Moskovitz, Amir Arison, Neal Lerner
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2007
Walter Vale is a depressed, middle-aged, widowed professor of global economics at Connecticut College who lives a solitary existence. He fills his days by suffering through piano lessons, with several teachers, in a half-hearted attempt to sustain a connection to his late wife, who was a famous classical concert pianist. Vale appears cold and detached when he makes his last, elderly piano teacher figure out for herself why she will not be needed again. The pain of losing his wife makes him shut down his emotions. His lips form a straight line, never showing smiles or sadness.
Sometimes Walter works on a new book, but it is nowhere near completion. He dislikes the single course he has taught for twenty years, and recycles 20-year-old syllabi and lecture notes. The professor also terminates his office hours prematurely. In one scene, he coldly rejects a student's late paper without even considering his "personal problems" that made it late.
Only because his department head persists, Walter reluctantly agrees to present an academic paper he co-authored at a global economics conference at New York University. Initially protesting this assignment, he tells a colleague that he had agreed to put his name on the paper only as a favor. The professor never even read the complete work and does not feel competent to present it.
Walter rarely visits his nice, tidy apartment in Manhattan that he has kept for years. Arriving for the conference, he lets himself in and is startled by a screaming young African woman in his bathtub. Her boyfriend appears from somewhere. The interlopers are ready to call the police when Walter explains it is his apartment. It turns out that the couple rented the place from a swindler who claimed it was his.
The "roomers" are a Palestinian-Syrian, Tarek, and his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab. Although the couple has no place to go, they hastily pack up, apologize, and leave. Walter's initial dismay and irritation gives way to an instinctive flicker of compassion. He follows the couple and persuades them to return and stay, at least for a short while.
Over the next few days, a friendship between the two men develops. Zainab is more reserved and suspicious of their new benefactor than her boyfriend. The young man is a virtuous djembe (African drum) player, who performs in the park and in restaurants as part of a band. Zainab designs and sells handmade ethnic jewelry at flea markets.
When Walter tells Tarek that he loves music, but has failed at learning the piano, t he young man teaches the professor to play the djembe. He reveals to his new student that he would like to play it on a subway platform some time. Both join a group of drummers at an impromptu drum circle in Central Park. As a student of rhythm, Walter begins to feel his zest for life and his appreciation of New York returning after a long period of dormancy. His life lights up.
But the blue skies turn overcast and the multicultural idyll is shattered when Tarek is mistakenly charged with subway turnstile jumping. He is arrested for failing to pay his fare, and taken to a detention center for illegal immigrants in Queens. Walter watches this incident, protesting with disbelief. Back at home, he learns from Zainab that they are illegal immigrants. She wants to move out to live with a cousin in the Bronx.
For the first time since his wife died, Walter is feeling his emotions now deeply. His visits at the detention center are painful. Feeling guilty because he had initiated their fateful subway ride, Walter hires an immigration lawyer to prevent his friend's deportation from the United States.
Tarek's mother Mouna unexpectedly arrives from Michigan because she was unable to contact her son by phone. With hesitation, she accepts Walter's offer to stay in his apartment. The two develop a friendship. Walter confesses that his life is unfulfilling. Mauna shares that her journalist husband had died shortly after his seven-year-long politically motivated imprisonment in Syria. She is concerned about her son's future in their home country if he is deported. The two begin to share a simple domestic existence. Mouna prepares meals, and Walter treats her to The Phantom of the Opera because she mentions her love for the original cast recording that Tarek had sent her as a gift.
The cruelty of post-9/11 immigration policies leads to Tarek's deportation to Syria without warning. Walter is distraught and comforts Mouna. She blames herself because she might have made things worse when she threw away a letter from the INS that had denied Tarek asylum three years ago.
Mauna decides to follow her son to Syria even though she knows that this means that she can never return to the US because of her own illegal status. During their final night, she joins Walter for a comforting embrace in bed. He sees her off at the airport the next day. Alone once again, Walter sells his piano and plays his drum enthusiastically on a subway platform, as Tarek would have loved to do.
I had seen Caroline, a sixty-year-old woman, for a couple of years. During this time, she had successfully worked through debilitating childhood traumas resulting from emotional abuse by an alcoholic mother. This helped her develop the self-confidence she needed to set boundaries in her relationships and start early retirement from an unfulfilling job in order to move toward self-actualization in her creative work. Besides teaching writing classes at a college Caroline focused now on her passion: creative writing. But she felt some regret and self-criticism having waited so long with this transition, even though her finances would have allowed her to retire earlier.
During the course of Caroline's treatment, we had used movies as a catalyst for her therapeutic process several times. I had invited her to let me know when she saw a film that had special meaning for her. One day she mentioned that after watching The Visitor, she could not stop thinking about this film.
I asked Caroline what part of the movie she considered a "gem" that touched her. She described a dialog between Mauna and Walter toward the end of the film and paraphrased this scene in the following way: "Walter says to Mauna that he feels stuck, that his work doesn't mean anything to him, and that he only pretends to be a professor. He regrets and almost apologizes to Mauna that he didn't access his creativity earlier. But she responds compassionately and then asks him what he would do if ended his academic career. Then Walter replies that he doesn't know what the future will bring for him. When Mauna says, 'isn't not knowing somehow exciting?' Walter agrees."
For Caroline this sequence contained important messages. When I asked her how she feels about Mauna's compassionate response to Walter, she responded: "It makes complete sense. I guess I could apply this compassionate perspective to myself. I should stop being so self-critical about the fact that I have not always made my own creativity a primary focus. As Walter develops the courage to consider letting go of his past and some old patterns, he opens up to the present moment and welcomes the unknown. In the last scene, when he drums at the subway station, he demonstrates how it is possible to transcend loss and regret if you follow what is true for you."
I felt moved by Caroline's exploration and suggested to get in touch with her "Inner Walter" as he appears to her at the end of the movie. She was familiar with this kind of intervention from our previous work with movies. Identifying with the mature Walter allowed my client to contemplate her life from a new, mature perspective. Subsequently I encouraged her to reconnect with this viewpoint whenever self-critical thoughts or regrets re-appear in her daily life. This helped Caroline let go of regret and self-doubts. Her creative writing began to blossom and she started writing a novel for the first time.
Even though Walter's story is different from Caroline's, it helped her to identify with the viewpoint that he develops after going through his transformation. She watched him finding the courage to face his worst fears and consequently expanding his possibilities.
Especially when we go through life changes, movies in which characters go through this kind of maturation process help clients access their courage to release the hurt that is stuck in the past and the fear that is projected into the future. They follow the characters' process of letting go and learn to move into the present moment where they can take action with clarity.
For these film stories to be effective, they do not need to match the clients' specific life circumstances. Their mind translates the allegoric messages from the movie into the appropriate guidance for their situation. The transformative power of allegories and metaphors has long been utilized in psychotherapy. Depth psychotherapy assumes that the unconscious communicates its content primarily in symbols. Other therapeutic approaches, like hypnotherapy for example, developed methods that impact the unconscious through metaphors and allegoric teaching tales because it is believed that they address the unconscious and bypass the conscious mind. Imagery that is stimulated through the symbolism seen in films generates feelings that otherwise have not been experienced in this way. With certain movies this process engages insight and creative problem solving.
Guidelines and Questions for Clients
Please let me know when you see a film that has special meaning for you.
What do you consider a "gem" in this movie? Which part is especially meaningful to you?
Please paraphrase any relevant dialog that you remember in this part.
What can you learn from it?
Get in touch with your "Inner ... (character's name)" as he/she appears after his/her transformation or maturation process.
Reconnect with this new viewpoint whenever old, less mature thoughts or behaviors re-appear in your daily life.
Birgit Wolz wrote the following continuing education online courses:
Cinema Therapy - Using the Power of Movies In the Therapeutic Process, which guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy.
Cinema Therapy with Children and Adolescents - This course teaches Cinema Therapy with young clients. It includes numerous movie suggestions, which are categorized according to age and issues. It serves therapists, teachers, and parents.
Positive Psychology and the Movies: Transformational Effects of Movies through Positive Cinema Therapy - This course teaches how to develop clinical interventions by using films effectively in combination with positive psychotherapy. It serves for mental health practitioners and anybody who is interested in personal growth and emotional healing.
Therapeutic Ethics in the Movies - What Films Can Teach Psychotherapists About Ethics and Boundaries in Therapy, which covers: confidentiality, self-disclosure, touch, dual relationships and out-of-office experiences (i.e., home visits, in-vivo exposures, attending a wedding, incidental encounters, etc.)
Boundaries and the Movies - Learning about Therapeutic Boundaries through the Movies, which covers informed consent, gifts, home office, clothing, language, humor and silence, proximity and distance between therapist and client, and, finally, sexual relations between therapist and client.
DSM: Diagnoses Seen in Movies - Using Movies to Understand Common DSM Diagnoses.
Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) - A New Approach to Diagnosis in Psychotherapy