Thomas McCarthy’s film The Visitor snuck up on me several months ago. I forget who, but a couple of friends had recommended it and one boring night, there it was, offered on one of the cable subscription channels. So I clicked on it and sat there, no expectations…and just got bowled over. Whether it was the subtle, spot-on, utterly surprising performance of Richard Jenkins as Walter Vale, a grieving, lost university professor who hadn’t changed the syllabus of his one class for years, or the infectious smile of Haaz Sleiman as Terek, the Syrian illegal who awakens Walter with his kindness and drumming, or the luminous performance of Danai Jekesai Gurira as Terek’s cautious and worried lover, it’s hard to say. Each role is played with such simplicity, authenticity, and trust–just beautiful work. McCarthy’s direction is reminiscent of his other film, The Station Agent, and I must confess, I love the slow movement, the detail of quirky behavior, the rhythm of interaction so unafraid of awkward pause and silence.
The story caused quite a discussion in our film group last night. In short, it’s a film about putting a human face on relationships that are too easily shortchanged through the usual lenses of political agenda and stereotyping, and the power of friendship, kindness, and hospitality to reawaken a life. (Parable of the “Good Syrian” maybe?) Walter Vale finds Terek and Zainab (Gurira’s character) holed up in Walter’s New York apartment that he hasn’t visited, as he puts it, “in a long, long time.” Terek and Zainab (from Senegal) are illegals who have managed to carve out a life in the US for many years. (Spoiler ahead.) The journey these characters take together runs through an explosive initial meeting in a dark, frightening hallway, to a cautiously shared table, to passionate drumming in Central Park, and finally to a US immigration detention center and deportation. Walter realizes it’s time to wake up, to tell the truth, and his care for these two young artists (Zainab does handmade jewelry) leads him to an encounter with Terek’s mother (another lovely performance, this time by Hiam Abbass) that is both restrained and heartbreaking in all the best ways.
What was interesting to me about our discussion was the immediate heat of the immigration question. When I first saw the film, the political nature of the story was not the first thing that struck me, which to me was part of the great success of the film. It could have so easily been a preachy diatribe about the injustice of the system as it relates to people who come here for desperate reasons and try to live out their choices as best they can. But it wasn’t that at all. The political side of the discussion rapidly expands as you think about the film, but first and foremost, it is a human piece about the awakening of the heart through very difficult circumstances, and the way in which new, personal information about those whom we usually place in racially stereotypical boxes changes everything. (Plus, it was hard for me to get past Jenkins’ performance–it was absolutely stunning. I can revel in that for a long time.)
But the discussion of the difficulties of immigration law was both heated and fair. I was impressed by both the passion and the cogency of the arguments. What surprised me most was that at one point, the discussion teetered on the brink of brushing the film off as a stereotypical treatment, the characters mostly idealized types. When backed into a corner, I suppose I can see the point (the illegals were beautiful, kind, and artists, for goodness’ sake–of course you’re going to love them and feel bad for them), but I wondered if the group had seen the same film I had. For me, the greatness of the film is that it resists doing exactly what it was being accused of–it had particularized these characters in the way good writing does. And believe me, as someone who has had his character work lambasted in the press as being full of stereotype, when I was trying very hard not to fall into that trap, I can tell you that creating that kind of reality is hard…very hard.
And of course, the great tension is this: if we see The Visitor as a kind of Good Syrian parable, who are we in the story, and what is the action and responsibility that’s being suggested? That’s next week’s study.