Film : Bringing the subject of illegals close to home
America's immigration policies take a few knocks in the charming, but bittersweet movie, "The Visitor," which the Martha's Vineyard Film Society's is showing this Saturday at the Katharine Cornell Theatre.
Although he'll probably be outshone at the February 22 Oscar awards by other more iconic nominees, it's easy to understand why Richard Jenkins, star of "The Visitor," was nominated as Best Actor. His restrained and understated performance as Walter Vale, the seemingly mousy college professor who befriends two illegal immigrants, is a tour de force.
Recently widowed, the gloomy Walter Vale finds himself adrift, both as an academic and a would-be piano player. When a colleague pressures him into returning to New York after a long absence, he discovers strangers occupying the apartment he once shared with his wife.
Equally surprised are the occupants, a young couple, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), and his Sengalese girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira). They've been victimized in a New York real estate scam in which unoccupied apartments are rented to unsuspecting people by unauthorized people.
Walter invites the couple to stay until they find another apartment. A master at projecting a deceptive blandness, Jenkins shows how Walter slowly comes alive again through his friendship with drummer Tarek, a drummer and Zainab, a jeweler.
Soon Walter is playing drums with Tarek and the Central Park Drum Circle, and eating meals cooked by Zainab, who remains more reserved than her boyfriend. One after another, each small domestic moment begins to light up the lives of the characters.
Then catastrophe hits. Tarek is arrested in the subway by undercover policemen, sent to a detention center for illegal aliens, and threatened with deportation.
Walter hires an immigration lawyer to help his new friend, and Tarek's mother Mouna, played by the Arab-Israeli actor Hiam Abbass, arrives from Michigan. (You may be remember her from the 2006 Film Society screening of "The Syrian Bride.") As Mouna and Walter struggle to free Tarek from the injustices of the post 9/11 immigration bureaucracy, there is the implication of a developing courtship between them.
Director Tom McCarthy, who wrote the script, wisely refrains from taking the relationship between Mouna and Walter beyond believable bounds. In "The Visitor," McCarthy, also responsible for a 2003 gem, "The Station Agent," assembled a beautifully crafted story that wends its subtle way through a thicket of issues. He is an acute observer of the small but telling etiquette of human interactions, like Mouna's reluctance to impose on Walter.
McCarthy casts a telling eye on the machinery of deportation, with its lack of humanity and decency. Uniformed officers ignore the pleas for providing family members with information about detainees, issuing a threatening, "Step away from the window."
Thanks to Jenkins's finely tuned performance, Walter, who seems so defeated at the movie's start, comes alive in entirely believable ways. The quietness of his movements, the downward set of his mouth, the liveliness in his eyes -- these details in the performance speak volumes.
It is no small feat for an actor to negotiate successfully the disjunction between apparent bloodlessness and the genuine feeling behind a character's actions. In "The Visitor" it becomes entirely credible that a buttoned-down man like Walter, always wearing a suit, likes playing the drums enough to perform in the subway. While the actor had no experience playing the popular West African djembe used in the movie, he did play drums in his youth, which was no doubt an asset.
The other three central actors rise to his example. Tarek's bubbly, enthusiastic personality is balanced by Zainab's cautious primness. Mouna's passionate loyalty to her son feeds convincingly into her attraction to Walter, so that even as far-fetched a notion as a romance between them becomes persuasive.
Devoid of car chases, guns, and special effects, "The Visitor" may seem like a small movie. But it is big in relevant issues, exposing American immigration phobia for the betrayal of national values that it is and celebrating multiculturalism for its healthy, leavening power.
"The Visitor," Saturday, Feb. 7, 7:30 p.m., Katharine Cornell Theatre, Spring Street, Vineyard Haven. Tickets $8 ($5 for Film Society members). Doors open at 7 p.m.
Brooks Robards writes on film, art, and books for The Martha's Vineyard Times.