May 8, 2008

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The Visitor (PG-13)
A bored professor finds new purpose in his life after befriending a young undocumented couple living in his apartment in New York City in The Visitor.

Walter (Richard Jenkins) is floating through his job as a professor at a Connecticut university. Like a senior in his spring semester, Walter attempts to do as little as possible ó using the book heís not really writing as an excuse to teach only one class and using both those things as an excuse not to travel to a conference to present the paper on which he is a co-author but didnít really do any work. When his ďIím really busyĒ claims fail to convince his superiors, Walter packs up like a kid sadly preparing his backpack and his school clothes on a Sunday night and mopingly drags himself into the city. On arriving, he goes to the apartment where he hasnít been for ages. He opens the door and finds fresh cut flowers and light under some of the doors, opening the one to the bathroom to find a vary surprised Zainab (Dani Gurira) soaking in the tub. She screams, he screams, then her boyfriend Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) shows up and does some more screaming. Quickly, though, they figure out that Walter has keys and doesnít know the guy who rented them the place. Zainab and Tarek pack and leave, forgetting a picture frame. Walter sees it and takes it down to the young couple, who at this point are still standing on the street trying to figure out the next move. Walter invites them back to the apartment for the night, an offer that appears to turn in to several days as Walter lets the kids stay while looking for a new place and he attends his conference ó plodding through boring-looking days to come home to the easygoing drummer Tarek, the wary Zainab and her home cooking. Walter attends one of Tarekís shows and (having recently given up on learning the piano, the instrument played and taught by his dead wife) Walter even takes a couple of whacks at the African drum Tarek plays when he thinks heís alone in the apartment. Naturally, he isnít and Tarek is soon giving Walter lessons and even taking him to the park to play with other drummers.

Itís on one such outing that Walter learns why Zainab always looks so worried ó because of their undocumented status, even minor trouble can become catastrophic. When police mistakenly think that Tarek has jumped a turnstile, they arrest him and send him (upon learning his immigration status) to a detention center. Worse than the police department jail, the detention center is shown in the movie as a large concrete box into which people disappear.

Afraid of what will happen to her son (though herself undocumented and so unable to visit him), his mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) shows up to find out about her son, giving Walter yet another new friend who becomes an instant almost-familial figure in his life.

The Visitor is the kind of quiet-seeming movie whose trailers donít have you itching to buy a ticket and whose title even seems rather bland and off-putting. Donít let the Good-For-You appearance of this film scare you off. In this small world are rich characters whose dialogue is the tip of the iceberg of the rest of their personalities. Disappointment, struggle, sadness and longing weigh on the characters like chain mail coats. As the situation with Tarek becomes more difficult and more out of their (or seemingly anyoneís) control, you see them start to break open in places, the cracks revealing parts of all the emotions theyíre holding back. These four performances that make up the movieís core are all genuine and captivating.

For all its moments of bleakness and anguish, The Visitor is also quite funny. Before we get to know Tarek and Zainabís immigration difficulties and geopolitical backgrounds, we get to know them as an occasionally quarrelsome young couple (with Tarek too carefree for Zainabís comfort). Before we get to know Walter on an emotional level, we watch him fail at a piano lesson (causing him to fire the instructor). Before it posits questions about immigration and belonging, The Visitor shows you its dry humor and charms you with its quiet, gentle characters. B+

Rated PG-13 for brief strong language. Written and directed by Thomas McCarthy, The Visitor is an hour and 48 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Overture Films. The movie is scheduled to screen at Red River Theatres and Wilton Town Hall Theatre.