The Visitor (2007)


THE VISITOR—-reviewing Time Out Of Mind, the sincere but flawed Richard Gere piece about Homelessness, I included an asterisk ad-on comment enumerating a few of the serious issues deluging us that get reflected or refracted in our movies.  One I failed to mention was Immigration, which gets a look in this acclaimed 2007 drama written & directed by Tom McCarthy.  It’s not really about immigration as much as the less heated, more pervasive subject of Loneliness.  A sensitive meditation on the concept of sharing, the simple person-to-person interactions that can lift the sense of despair that inhabits the lonely, it gave a career-high role to one of the great sad-faced character actors of his generation.


Projecting quiet smarts with a mix of wry detachment and buried hurt, Richard Jenkins, at 60, had been diligently plying his trade on film for 33 years before landing the lead here.  His canny gift for underplaying, using a deep velvet voice with hair-splitting subtlety made for a perfect match of craftsman to character, bringing him a fan & peer-pleasing Oscar nomination as Best Actor.*


Widowed and depressed, bored to inertia with his job, Prof. Walter Vale (Jenkins) has no life to speak of. Effort is on ebb. His ice begins to shift when he discovers two Middle Eastern refugees living in his old apartment.  Syrian drummer Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab, a street clothing vendor from Senegal (Dania Gurira) are so desperate, upbeat, kindly and sincere that Walter’s initial suspicion turns to friendship, and then to advocacy when a stray subway snafu has Tarek hauled into detention. Tarek’s mother, Mouna (Haim Abbass) meets Walter. How will this play out?


Not like you think, thanks to the sensitive writing, direction and performances, a mutually reinforcing triumvirate deploying beautifully observed small moments of tribulation and revelation instead of crowd-simple Big Speech grandstanding and sappy handwringing.  The tag line is “Connection is everything“, here embracing communication across cultural boundaries (and/or physical borders), salvaging identity and dignity from crisis and fate.  After all, what is a great part of the immigration experience if not loneliness born from separation, replacing the comforting familiar with clumsiness-fraught initiation to the alien?  Is there a better way to overcome personal stagnation and drift than to find something bigger than yourself to work for and in the doing release whatever may be locked up inside?


Xenophobes won’t be convinced, even if they can stop spitting long enough to see something like this—unlikely since the bugaboo of illegal immigration attached to the plot doesn’t call for resolution through gunfire and—face it, they’re mostly too stupid to start with.  If you’re not a bigot or simpleton and have any grasp of the swirling transnational  world of individual human hearts trampled under the boots of politics, you’ll be hard pressed not to be moved by this story and these characters.

Budgeted at a scant $4,000,000 the 104 minute peace offering to decency garlanded $18,078,000. With Richard Kind, Michael Cumpsty and Miriam Seldes.


*They gave it to Sean Penn for Milk.  He was fine, and Jenkins is suburb, but it really should have gone to Mickey Rourke for another lost soul in The Wrestler.  Jenkins comment on the role he was up for: “It’s one of those things that I didn’t know if I would ever get an opportunity to try. I’ve been waiting my entire professional life for this experience.”


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