Over the past week I've seen two films that somehow need to be described as 'festival films.' By that I don't mean that they're not good, not well-made, well-acted or even uninteresting; instead, they're small, compelling, attractive or at least innovative; but without the power that we expect of great films large or small (I think of Louis Malle's "Au Revoir Les Enfants" as a small film made large by the power and genius of its creator). And so, like the Lebanese film "Caramel," which I saw just a week ago, with all the best will in the world "The Visitor" lacks the resonance of great art.
It's the story of Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), an economics professor at a college in Connecticut. He's depressed and at loose ends after the death of his wife, a concert pianist; he tries to take piano lessons as a way of reconnecting with his memories of her. He's taught the same class for twenty years, simply changing the syllabus with white-out from year to year. For all this time he's kept an apartment in New York, and reluctantly goes there to deliver an associate's paper at a conference.
When he comes into the apartment he finds two illegal immigrants living there; they've been hoodwinked into thinking that the apartment is theirs. They are Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) from Syria, and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira) from Senegal. And they are a life force to this repressed man. Tarek is an African drummer, Zainab sells her jewelry and woven bracelets on the street.
Walter is painfully slow at comprehending that these are good people and have nowhere to go, and so, while you and I in the audience are ready to shake him for not understanding this, he finally allows them to stay in the apartment. In fact, Tarek begins to teach Walter the African drums; the two of them join a drum circle in what appears to be Washington Square Park, and then disaster strikes. At a subway turnstile Tarek is arrested, put into a detention center for illegal immigrants in Queens, and now faces deportation. Zainab cannot even visit him because she could be arrested also.
Walter finds an immigration attorney to help, and the rest of the film is concerned with what happens to each of them. Tarek's mother Mouna (the Israeli Arab actress Hiam Abbass) comes from Michigan to help, and finds at least a warm shoulder in Walter.
The film was written and directed by Tom McCarthy, who also wrote and directed "The Station Agent," a film that depended on the astounding performance of Peter Dinklage for its impact. "The Visitor" has only Richard Jenkins, who goes out of his way not to show us his personality, and I think it suffers accordingly. But I don't want to dismiss it as unimportant; everyone other than Jenkins is breathtaking to watch, and that is almost enough to save the film. Only the fact that McCarthy allows himself too many shots of the American flag, the Statue of Liberty and other reminders of America's insane paranoia under Bush undercuts the power of his film.