Actors: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Jekesai Gurira and Hiam Abbass
Written & Directed by: Thomas McCarthy
Running at: Cinema Village, E.12th St, New York City (as of July 26, 2008)
There is drama in every human life.
Not high drama in all cases, but every life has some interesting moments.
Unimaginative Bollywood filmmakers have shoveled the same tripe for decades with minor variations in actors and locations.
So fatigued as we were of crappy Hindi and Tamil movies, we decided during our recent visit to New York City to take a break from crap and watch an English movie – The Visitor – about which we had heard some nice things.
Written and directed by Thomas McCarthy (of The Station Agent fame), The Visitor is the moving story of an economics Professor and three immigrants in the U.S.
Richard Jenkins plays an economics professor and widower Walter Vale from Connecticut who has lost the joie de vivre and is just plodding on in a listless existence.
As Vale confesses at one point in the movie:
I have been teaching the same course for 20 years. I pretend to be busy.
But things begin to change for Vale when he’s forced by his college to attend a conference in New York City on economic growth in developing nations.
Once in Manhattan, Vale heads for his apartment, a place he’s not been to in a long time. To his shock, he finds two squatters in his home – a Syrian musician Tareq Khalil (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese black girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira) are in Vale’s house because they were duped by an unscrupulous real estate agent called Ivan whom we never meet.
Tareq plays the Djembe (a kind of African drum) at clubs and on the street while Zainab makes intricate jewelry that she sells on the street.
Moved by their plight, Vale lets the couple stay on at his place.
Soon, Vale and Tareq strike an unlikely friendship, a friendship that restores the older man’s zest for life.
Vale learns to play the African drum with an enthusiasm that shows on his face. His listless gait is replaced by a spring in his steps.
Jenkins is a fine actor as is Haaz Sleiman, who plays Tarek. Danai Gurira, an award-winning actress, doesn’t have that prominent a role in this movie.
Director McCarthy introduces a nice twist when Tarek is arrested at the subway station and held by immigration agents for deportation since he is an illegal resident.
Soon, Tarek’s mother Mona Khalil (Hiam abbass) arrives from Michigan because she’s not heard from her son in five days.
Vale does his best to help his new friend Tarek including hiring an immigration attorney Peter Shah.
In the meantime, we see a budding romance develop between Vale and Mona, also an illegal immigrant as is Zainab.
Can this budding romance flourish amidst the tension of Tarek’s detention and his likely deportation?
Although not a polemical screech on immigration, The Visitor casts a spotlight on the human face and the tragedy of illegal immigrants, of whom there could be as many as 20 million living in the shadows.
The Visitor is a richly rewarding experience, one of the few nice movies we’ve watched in 2008.
It’s the ability to take ordinary souls and everyday events and fashion a nice movie out of such common clay that distinguishes good English and foreign movie-makers from our Bollywood bozos.