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Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Visitor

An immigrant story

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Walter Vale stares from the window of his well-appointed suburban Connecticut home. He is alone, and as one scene in The Visitor moves into the next, we learn more. Walter (Richard Jenkins) is plodding through his career as an economics professor, droning on about globalization to a big lecture hall, working desultorily on a book few will ever read. His mind is on pause at faculty meetings and he is unconcerned about his students.

The picture of him on a shelf at home, with a woman, is a clue: He was married and his wife has died. Since then Walter drinks red wine and listens to piano concertos, cocooned in melancholia. Awkward as a ghost among the living, the fire of Walter’s soul has almost been extinguished. On a trip to New York for an academic conference, he is jolted from apathy when he encounters a pair of illegal immigrants squatting in his seldom-used Manhattan apartment. Will the flame of his potential burn brightly once again when confronted with an opportunity to help others?

The Visitor is a surprisingly moving fable about a man who makes the transition from apathy to empathy. Not unreasonably, Walter at first asks the squatter Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira) to leave the apartment. But while staring at them from his window as they proceed with their belongings into an unknown future, he decides to follow the couple outside. For obscure reasons he feels sorry about expelling them and invites them to return—until they can get properly settled.

The trailer for The Visitor gives the false impression that it will be a clich feel-good flick. We see Tarek, an ebullient Syrian refugee, showing the stodgy white man how to cut loose by playing an African drum. And the mumbly-fumbly Walter decides to grow a spine and get involved when Tarek is scooped up by the aptly named ICE (Immigration & Customs Enforcement).

Well, it works as a plot synopsis, but director-writer Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent) found ways to lift his story above Hollywood expectations. The fable takes twists and turns that leave the viewer, and Walter, in unexpected places.

Aside from showing the Kafka-like limbo where many illegal immigrants have fallen, post-9-11 (who should be surprised that detention centers are operated by private contractors?), The Visitor has a striking appreciation for the many experiences that comprise contemporary immigrant life, especially when under the shadow of deportation. Although both Tarek and Zainab are Muslim, she is from Senegal. When Tarek’s mother arrives looking for him (her own status in the U.S. is shaky), she is startled by “how black” Zainab is. With a keen eye for its New York setting—polymorphous and poly-lingual, crowded and on the go—The Visitor wraps its exemplary story in the texture of reality.
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