2007 - United States - 104 minutes
Director and Writer - Thomas McCarthy
My Rating - 5 of 5 Stars
Walter Vale has reached the point in life where he is proceeding emotionally on cruise control. His wife, an accomplished pianist, has died, and Walter is basically going through the motions of life. As an economics professor in a Connecticut college, he has reached the point where he has no empathy for anyone, is deadly dull as a teacher, mean and unforgiving to his students, and is suffering writer’s block in the production of his third book. The only spark of any interest he seems to have is that he endeavors to take piano lessons in order to bring to life his wife’s beloved instrument. He also fails at this.
Walter’s malaise is about to be eradicated by a surprising event. He has been directed to go to New York City to present a paper. When Walter arrives at his New York apartment that he has been to in years, he finds two young people living there. It seems that they have been tricked into believing that they are subletting the apartment from someone who is out of the country.
The couple agrees to immediately leave, but when Walter realizes they have no place to go, he invites them to stay until they can find a place. This is a strange move for Walter, but the couple seems to be genuine - especially the man who is witty and charming. They settle in to a parallel existence.
The couple are Zainab and Tarek. Zainab is from Senegal. She creates jewelry and sells her art at an outdoor market. Tarek is from Syria. He plays an African drum called a djembe [JEM-bay] in a jazz trio. It is never explained in the film how a Syrian became an expert at playing a drum from West Africa, but that is of little import. It is personality and the drum that begins to enchant Walter and draw him from his shell.
Tarek’s overwhelming positive attitude and openness draws Walter more and more out of his shell. Tarek teaches Walter to play the djembe, and the two even join a drum circle in Central Park. It is hard to understand why Zainab remains distant as Tarek and Walter become closer and closer, but the reasons are revealed when Tarek is falsely arrested and sent to a detention center. At this time, Walter learns that they both are illegal aliens.
Walter proceeds to make it his business to get Tarek released from the detention. At this point, the fourth major character in the film appears - Tarek’s mother who has been living in the Midwest. The film continues to explore the relationships amongst these four characters during this time of crisis.
This beautiful film is written and directed by Thomas McCarthy who also wrote and directed The Station Agent - another film of superior quality. McCarthy is also a very recognizable actor who has appeared in numerous films. His gift of creating characters that are real people who are very special is extraordinary. They are a delight for the viewer.
Walter is played by Richard Jenkins who is a prolific character actor. You may not recognize the name, but you would instantly recognize his face if you are at all familiar with films. Jenkins gives us a Walter that we feel we know for he is that guy who has become so imbedded in his drudge of a life that he sees no real hope for the future. He discovers a new life through his contact with these two young people and a contemporary in the form of Tarek’s mother, Mouna.
Mouna is played by Hiam Abbass, a superior Israeli/Arab actress who appears mostly in foreign films. Her performances, as in The Visitor, are always filled with genuine emotion with restraint. She is force to be admired.
Danai Jekesai Gurira (Zainab) and Haaz Sleiman (Tarek) are two unknown actors who probably won’t be unknown for long. Gurira gives a beautifully restrained performance as a young woman who so dearly loves a man but is so frightened she will lose him. Sleiman exhibits an infectious personality as Tarek. He is a delight to watch.
The Visitor is an excellent must-see film. It contains all that is best in life - tears, love, and hope.
October 13, 2008