The Visitor is an exquisite, simple tale about ordinary people enmeshed in the post 9/11 immigration quandary. The movie posits no political agenda, no annoying we’re-all-one-family reminder, there’s no specific villain, and the heroes make no grand gestures. It’s just a beautifully written, low-key story with characters you can’t forget.
Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins, TV’s Six Feet Under) teaches one economics class at a university in Connecticut. He’s become one of those professors that we loathe–he’s boring, petty, lazy, phony, and cruel. He grieves for his late wife, who was a pianist, by making pathetic attempts to learn to play the instrument she had loved. Richard Jenkins brilliantly creates such a quietly loathsome character, that you can’t muster an ounce of sympathy for him or his empty life. And then when he begins to change, he’s taken you inside his skin, and you know him so well you can’t stop cheering for him.
The university sends Walter to New York City to deliver a paper that has his name on it as co-author, but which he didn’t actually write. When he enters the apartment he keeps in the city, he discovers that it’s occupied by strangers, victims of a rental scam. Haas (Lebanon-born Tarek Khalil) is an émigré from Syria, a talented musician who is a genius on the African drum. His fiancée is Zanaib (Danai Jekesai Gurira), from Senegal, who sells her stunning hand-made jewelry at the local flea market. Both, of course, are illegal aliens–living tenuously in the country that promises everything, but at the same time withholds it all from those who don’t have the proper paperwork.
Walter insists Haas and Zanaib leave, even though they have nowhere to go. The couple hauls their few possessions down the stairs and out into the pouring rain. Couldn’t the guy at least have let these hapless strangers spend the night? You hate Walter more than ever. Then, perhaps because of the reminders of his wife in the apartment, Walter conjures up an ember of compassion and calls Haas and Zanaib back to the apartment.
Thus starts Walter’s slow but soul-soaring return to humanity. The trio lives together in an uneasy alliance.
Haas, an irrepressible extrovert, teaches Walter how to play the African drum and takes him to the park to jam with other drummers. In spurts of youthful enthusiasm, Walter discovers a passion that he never knew existed. He feels joy from the rhythms of distant shores.
Zanaib on the other hand, remains wary. She can’t stand the stuffy old white American. Nevertheless, one night she cooks an African dinner and shares it with him. Walter finds it strange but delicious and is touched by her generosity.
On the way home one day after Walter and Haas have drummed happily in the park, the subway police falsely accuse Haas of trying to sneak through the turnstile without paying. In the old days, Haas would have merely been slapped on the wrist and released. Not now. Everything about undocumented aliens has changed since 9/11. Haas is sent to a bleak holding facility where he must endure weeks without knowing what his fate will be. Zanaib, undocumented herself, can’t even visit him. Nor can Haas call his mother in Detroit as he does every day to assure her he’s okay.
The days drag on. Zanaib grows increasingly worried. Haas fears the worst — he’s a Muslim from Muslim country with no papers–he could be deported without warning. After his father, a famous Syrian journalist was jailed for seven years and died from his mistreatment in prison, Haas’ mother fled with her son to the United States. If Haas is returned to Syria, he knows he will be imprisoned immediately if not killed outright. Walter, ignorant of the world of illegal immigration, blithely assumes that the mistake will be rectified and Haas will soon come home, everything okay.
Failing to hear from her son, Haas’ mother Mouna Khalil (Israeli actress Hiam Abbas) arrives unannounced at the apartment. She’s as shocked to meet Walter as he is to meet her but together, haltingly, they do what they can to help Haas. Romance is an unlikely prospect for two such disparate people, but love is not, and what happens between Walter and Mouna is so realistically portrayed, so touching, so believable that you want to jump into the movie screen and demand that fate bring them together. Alas, no such luck. All you can do for weeks afterwards is remember the characters in this movie every time you see an illegal alien or hear a news report about the problems with undocumented workers.
Director Tom McCarthy made a splash with his first feature, the quirky, enigmatic tale of a dwarf who inherits a railroad station (The Station Agent). The Visitor is a worthy successor and proves McCarthy is one of the most mature, nuanced filmmakers working today. Everything about the film–the themes, the performances, the music, the direction – everything–is perfect.
Alas, The Visitor is such a gentle movie in a summer of high-budget superheroes, that it made no buzz in the mainstream. It showed to rave reviews, at small art houses throughout the country, including Asheville’s Fine Arts Theatre. And that’s it. Unless another local theatre picks it up, you won’t be able to see The Visitor on the big screen. But it will be out on DVD soon. And if there is any justice in the world, The Visitor will be remembered at awards time later this year.