In Connecticut, lonely widowed Professor Walter Vale has a boring life. He teaches only one class at the local college and is trying to learn how to play the piano, despite not having the necessary musical talent. Walter is assigned to attend a conference about Global Policy and Development at New York University, where he is to give a lecture about a paper on which he is co-author. When he arrives at his apartment in New York, he finds Tarek Khalil, a Syrian musician, and Zainab, a Senegalese street vendor, living there. He sympathizes with the situation of the illegal immigrants and invites the couple to stay with him. Tarek invites him to go to his gig at Jules Live Jazz. Walter is fascinated with his African drum and Tarek offers to teach Walter to play the drum. However, after an incident in the subway, Tarek is arrested by the police and sent to a detention center for illegal immigrants. Walter has just hired a lawyer to defend Tarek when, out of the blue, Tarek's mother Mouna ... Written by
Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
From a rich exploration of character, to a slightly ill-conceived issue-based drama.
Richard Jenkins' portrayal of lacklustre professor Walter is beautifully underplayed, somnambulistically acting out the various roles of his life as a stilted economics professor. The beginning scenes unravel artfully and launch into the story where Walter is abruptly introduced to the young couple (Tarek and Zainab).
The ensuing impromptu friendship that develops is well conceived. The wariness and strong-will of Zainab contrasts well against her boyfriend Tarek's more forthright relaxed nature. The interplay between Tarek, Zainab and Walter is at times awkward, at times touching. I felt that these quality performances go a long way towards forgiving the unlikely set of circumstances (and responses) that brought and kept the three characters together.
I thought the scenes where Walter learns to play the djembe were beautifully played; Walter's awkward but curious initiation to drumming and the (unexpected) expression of pure joy on his face while playing added believable depth to an otherwise restrained and austere performance.
Walter's exposure to the djembe perhaps underpins the films well-intentioned message that our lives are enriched by living side-by side with other cultures. Good intentions aside, I think the second half of the film suffers because of the filmmaker's heavy-handed desire to go further and promote the idea that 'good people suffer in the hands of US immigration control'.
In my opinion producing a film with any agenda is problematic because it requires a degree of rationalisation and simplification which works against interesting characterisation. Life is very rarely straightforward and when it is straightforward, it isn't interesting to watch.
In the case of the second half of The Visitor, I felt that this overarching requirement to show the characters in a positive light removed any sense of conflict the characters might have otherwise possessed. The story no longer had a life of it's own and seemed to involve reaching a predetermined conclusion through any route possible.
The character of Tarek's (caring / strong / dignified) mother, fell short of the high-expectations that I'd built-up during the first half of the film. I felt her portrayal was lacking and I didn't fully understand the function her character played. The subsequent relationship that develops between Walter and Mouna seemed gratuitous and left too many questions unanswered.
After watching this and Tom McCarthy's first film (The Station Agent), it's clear to me that McCarthy is an accomplished director / writer - who perhaps excels at directing character-based stories. I think this film suffers because halfway through the film McCarthy attempts to move focus from a rich exploration of character, to a slightly ill-conceived issue-based drama.
Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed The Visitor.
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