The Visitor

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This review was written for the festival screening of "The Visitor." 

Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO -- In "The Visitor," actor-turned-filmmaker Tom McCarthy demonstrates that the critical acclaim for "The Station Agent" in 2003 was no fluke. The guy is a terrific storyteller, letting characters move into a story so naturally that the story develops and deepens his characters while their actions and behavior propel the story. "The Visitor" touches on both personal and political issues, but is never about those issues. McCarthy's story is about its people, a college professor lost in his own life and two, then three, illegal immigrants working hard in the United States, a country that can deport them at any moment.

Similar critical acclaim will drive "The Visitor" into specialty venues, where sophisticated adult audiences still appreciate good storytelling, and the potential exists for Independent Spirit Award noms. As "Station Agent" did for Peter Dinklage, "The Visitor" may generate audience awareness of the extraordinary talent of its lead actor, Richard Jenkins, who so disappears into his roles that people remember the face but not necessarily the name.

Jenkins plays Walter Vale, an economics professor specializing in globalization -- an ironic topic given the story he is about to enter. Since his wife's death, he continues to aimlessly inhabit a much too large suburban Connecticut house, where his only diversion is a struggle to learn the piano, a tribute to his late wife, a brilliant recording artist.

Forced to fill in for a colleague at a conference in Manhattan, he is startled to discover a young couple living in his seldom-used flat. A scam artist has "rented" the flat to Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Lebanese from Syria, and his wife Zainab (Danai Gurira), from Senegal. In a departure from what has become his abrupt and cold nature, Walter impulsively lets them stay until they find a place of their own.

Over the next few days, Walter and Tarek bond over music. Tarek plays the djembe, an African drum, in jazz bands. Walter is drawn to anything musical and soon Tarek is teaching him the rudiments of the instrument, much to the displeasure of his wife, a jewelry maker who despite Walter's kindness remains aloof from this American stranger.

A misunderstanding in the subway causes Tarek's arrest, which throws Zainab into turmoil: The two are undocumented immigrants. Tarek winds up in a detention center, but due to Zainab's status only Walter can visit him.

By the time Tarek's mother Mouna (the superb Israeli Arab actress Hiam Abbass) arrives from Detroit, Walter has hired an immigration lawyer and will soon take a leave of absence from the college. Mouna brought her young son to Michigan following the death of her journalist-husband at the hands of Syrian authorities, but the U.S. government never granted the family asylum. So she too is illegal.

Mouna reluctantly agrees to stay in Walter's flat while awaiting the outcome of her son's case. The two soon form an emotional connection, a mix of affection, compassion and anxiety over the fate of Mouna's son. Probably for the first time in years, these two feel a connection to the opposite sex, a feeling that is difficult to act on but strong nevertheless.

After two films, it's clear McCarthy is interested in how disparate people come together to form familial ties. He sees in these random intersections of lives a means to pull characters from self-imposed solitude and to establish the possibility and wonder of friendship. The film, of course, touches on immigration issues that occupy the headlines, but the film isn't about to deliver a lecture on immigration reform. McCarthy is smart enough to concentrate on the emotions his characters are going through and let the politics take care of itself.

As good as the actor-filmmaker is directing fellow actors, McCarthy is also a visual artist. In his Connecticut scenes, Jenkins is a figure lost in large spaces or crowds of indifferent people. In Manhattan, he looms large, occupying warm environments, whether playing drums in the park or making coffee in his apartment. He has become human again.

Jenkins is marvelous to watch as he shows how a man locked up in isolation slowly eases out of that shell through a love for music and new friendships. Abbass has much dignity and warmth as the cool yet frightened mother. Sleiman's vitality and gregariousness underscores the unfairness of the current system of blanket detentions of illegal immigrants. And Gurira displays the wariness of one whose life can be ripped away from her at any time.

McCarthy is firmly in control of every moment of his film, from the lines actors speak to the selection and use of locations. Even a couple of shots of an older man playing an ancient Chinese musical instrument in the subway speaks to his film's themes and characters.

THE VISITOR
Groundswell Prods./Participant Prods.
Writer/director: Tom McCarthy
Producers: Mary Jane Skalski, Michael London
Executive producers: Omar Amanat, Jeff Skoll, Ricky Strauss, Chris Salvaterra
Director of photography: Olivier Bokelberg
Production designer: John Paino
Costume designer: Melissa Toth
Music: Jan A. P. Kaczmarek
Editor: Tom McCardle
Cast:
Walter: Richard Jenkins
Mouna: Hiam Abbass
Tarek: Haaz Sleiman
Zainab: Danai Gurira
Running time -- 103 minutes
No MPAA rating

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