Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Visitor

2008 Sundance Film Festival
★ ★ ★ ★ (out of four)

I absolutely loved The Station Agent in Sundance 2003, so I put Tom McCarthy’s newest movie, The Visitor, at the top of my list. Boy was that a good call. This is a lovely, gentle and touching film that works on many levels. Richard Jenkins gives a perfectly understated performance. A veteran character actor (I counted 75 roles since 1985, that’s about five per year!), it’s the first time I remember him as a lead. And the rest of the cast is terrific as well, including Hiam Abbass, Haaz Sleiman and Danai Jekesai Gurira.

Walter Vale (Jenkins) is a widower who teaches economics at a Connecticut university. No longer motivated by his work, he lives alone, struggling to find passion and meaning in his life. In New York to present a paper at a conference, he goes to the apartment that he has kept since his wife was alive (but hasn’t visited for some time) only to discover a young couple living there, having been duped by an acquaintance who “rented” it to them. Despite their great cultural difference, Walter befriends Tarek, a Syrian citizen and drummer, and gradually builds a friendship with Zainab, his girlfriend from Senegal. One day, when returning from Central Park with Walter, Tarek gets arrested for jumping a subway turnstile, despite the fact that he had paid. The police discover he does not have legal papers and transfer him to an immigrant detention center in Queens. Feeling responsible for and connected to Tarek, Walter stays in New York to help and support him. Not hearing from her son, Tarek’s mother arrives from Michigan to find out why, and she and Walter support one another while they attempt to free Tarek.

The movie is a painful illustration of the inhumanity of the post-911 immigration policies and procedures. At the same time, it beautifully illuminates the wonders of friendship, kindness, reaching out, exploring life and finding meaning in a challenging world. Despite it's gentle pace, the story glides by, establishing characters that we care deeply about. The Visitor has a lot of heart. The audience reaction was effusive, and gave McCarthy the longest standing ovation I have heard at Sundance. Scheduled to be released April 11 in New York, definitely put this one on your list.

Sundance Moment: McCarthy talked about Participant Media, which helped fund the production (and also Syriana, Charlie Wilson’s War, An Inconvenient Truth and other cause-related movies). Visit their website at to explore meaningful causes and how you can become informed and get involved. McCarthy also said that he wrote the screenplay with Jenkins and Abbass in mind, tailoring their roles to the two of them.

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