Directed by: Thomas McCarthy
Premise: Walter (Richard Jenkins), a bored academic, has a chance encounter with Tarek and Zainab (Haaz Sleiman and Danai Jekesai Gurira), an illegal immigrant couple. They become friends, bonding over music, until Tarek is arrested and imprisoned in a detention center.
What Works: The Visitor is a film about the immigrant experience, which is a distinctly American genre. In dealing with foreigners, The Visitor does a terrific job characterizing people of another culture. Many films tend to portray people of color in flat terms, either turning them into characters who are otherwise white or making ethnicity an exotic state of otherness. Even well intentioned pictures often fall into this, and when it happens, the characters are robbed of real human dimensions. The Visitor sidesteps these potholes, allowing its characters to retain their culture but also give them a chance to live and breathe on screen. The film makes a point about this through the drum circles that Tarek plays in, the handcrafted jewelry that Zainab sells on the street, and their interactions with white culture. This raises The Visitor to a higher level of cultural awareness; it’s not very confrontational, but it does make the point without bogging down the story. There are some terrific performances in this film, especially from Richard Jenkins as a man who is shaken out of his malaise and becomes conscious to the diversity of the people around him. Equally good is Hiam Abbass as Mouna, Tarek’s mother. As Walter takes in Mouna and begins a relationship with her, the two actors deliver some quiet scenes with great sexual tension. The Visitor is also a post-September 11th film but it belongs in the same category as Reign Over Me; the film is about American life in the post-September 11th world and it explores that specifically through the life of immigrants.
What Doesn’t: If The Visitor is lacking in anything, it’s conflict. None of the principal characters really butt heads in the course of the story and the romance between Walter and Mouna, as good as it is, lacks a substantive obstacle to getting together.
Bottom Line: The Visitor is a great, intimate little film. The story’s penetration into the immigrant experience and its ability to deliver a lot of substance on a small canvas is very impressive.
Episode: #195 (June 29, 2008)