The Visitor

Immigration is certainly the hot political issue of our time. A new film, The Visitor, attempts to give the issue a human face. Christianty Today offers this positive review:

The Visitor centers upon Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), a crotchety economics professor who masks his loneliness (he’s a widower) with a veneer of “cell phone in hand” self-importance. Appropriately for what is to come in the story, Walter is about as white as you can get. He lives in a pristine Connecticut house but also maintains a Manhattan apartment. He drives a Volvo, is never without a glass of fine wine (even at the breakfast table), and takes piano lessons from an old white lady named Barbara Watson. Wherever he goes, Walter seems surrounded by white walls and an antiseptic aura.

On a trip to New York for a conference where he reluctantly must present a paper, Walter’s boring, hyper-white life takes a decidedly colorful turn. Upon entering his Manhattan apartment, Walter discovers that two undocumented immigrants have made themselves at home. A predictably dicey confrontation ensues (but is quickly ameliorated) as the foreign intruders try to explain themselves to an understandably shocked Walter. Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira) are the pair in question—two “invisible” immigrants from, respectively, Syria and Senegal. What could have been a violent interaction turns out to be the unlikely first step toward a deep friendship—albeit a tentative step. The lonely Walter feels pity on the couple and—as they gather their belongings to quietly leave Walter’s apartment—he invites them to stay as long as they need to.

Soon the oddly paired trio becomes something of a family—especially Walter and Tarek. Tarek is a djembe drummer and makes a living playing gigs with jazz bands throughout New York City. For whatever reason, Tarek takes it upon himself to teach the rhythm-challenged Walter to play as well—a process that provides many of the film’s funniest moments (including some hilarious scenes of Walter in a suit, banging away in a Central Park drum circle). It also provides the means for some serious cross-cultural bonding, which is ultimately what The Visitor is all about.

Of course, just as things are working out so swimmingly for our ethnically-diverse threesome, the whole immigration issue comes barging in to spoil the multicultural party. Tarek is nabbed on a bogus charge and locked up in a mysterious Homeland Security holding facility in Queens. Since Zainab is also an illegal, she cannot visit Tarek in jail (as she would be apprehended as well). Thus it is up to Walter to be the liaison and lone advocate for Tarek as he tries to fight his way out of deportation. Walter hires an immigration lawyer on Tarek’s behalf and prepares to do everything in his power to get Tarek on the path to legal residency.

. . .

As the film goes on, the title—The Visitor—becomes ever more meaningful. Each of the four main characters is at some point in the film an “outsider”—stepping into a world that is not comfortable, and certainly not “home.” But in spite of the “fish out of water” motif, the film finds plenty of occasions for deeply felt connection, even if tainted by a pervasive sense of temporality (as the title implies). Ultimately the film is about impermanence, both in its beauty (sharing moments and memories, growing, changing) and ugliness (leaving things behind).

Far from a downer, though, The Visitor is a cheerful bit of comedy-drama with some great acting performances from its four leads. Jenkins is especially brilliant in his first starring role. He’s one of those “familiar face” supporting actors who makes an impact in almost every scene he’s in. And despite his stoic face and unremarkable countenance, Jenkins exudes more than enough charisma and “everyman” empathy to carry the film. The other actors are equally empathetic, imbuing their characters with emotional range and a complexity that eschews simplistic stereotypes.

Though The Visitor tackles a weighty issue and—ultimately—provides no easy answers, it is a thoroughly satisfying film. It oozes goodness and humanity and—especially in the “love story” portion—a classy reverence for dignity and trans-cultural decorum. The film reminded me of another NYC-based film that tackles a “big issue” with goodness and grace—Bella. Both of these films revel in the good of their characters, offering the audience a glimpse of the joy that comes when people truly care for one another and uphold the value and beauty of life.

During an election year in which immigration is sure to play a significant role, a film like The Visitor is utterly refreshing. Far from a heavy-handed, agit-prop polemic, this is a film that asks us simply to humanize the issue. In the sometimes-harsh post-9/11 climate (and the constant shots of a WTC-less Manhattan skyline remind us that this is what the film is about), humanity sometimes takes a beating by the various “isms” (nationalism, terrorism, patriotism) that swirl around the ashes of 9/11. Christians have long preached (but not always practiced) the importance of loving people, first and foremost—despite their race or culture or religion. The Visitor shows us just how lovely and healing this idea—in practice—can be.

Read it all here.

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