I just watched the best film I've seen all year. 'The Visitor' is an uncommonly intelligent movie about complex issues (immigration, belonging, loss, multiculturalism) facing interesting, realistic characters.
In a nutshell, the movie is about a disillusioned, slightly sad Connecticut College Professor who goes to New York for a conference on 'Economies in the Developing World'. He is intending to stay in his small, unused New York City apartment (one of the more unbelievable elements in the story- wouldn't he have rented it out?). He's shocked to find a couple (illegal aliens from Senegal and Syria) squatting in the apartment. Some strange combination of curiosity, kindness, rebellion perhaps, makes him agree to let the couple stay on for a few days till they find a new place. A fledgling friendship starts between the three of them...One day Tarek (the Syrian guy) is arrested in the subway and is placed in a detention facility once his illegal status is revealed.
What follows next is believable, human and moving. At no point is the story cliched, though it easily could have been. The professor, Walter (Richard Jenkins, I give you my own personal oscar now) is curious, eager to step into multi-cultural absolution but is too intelligent and nuanced to become a politically correct caricature. Tarek is friendly, warm and unguarded but Zaneb is quieter- more hardened by her circumstances, more withdrawn. Tarek's mother, who enters later in the film and is played beautifully by Hiam Abass is intelligent, cautious but compassionate. Their interactions with each other and each other's worlds ring true and are full of small illuminations, little moments where I found myself smiling in recognition of a situation, coming from my own strangely apt experience as a foreigner in the US academic space.
Other moments are heart breaking, only because they are so plausible. The everyday indignities inflicted on Tarek and Zaneb, and the way they cope with them, sometimes with laughter, other times with anger, were difficult to watch. Walter's discomfort and helplessness mirrors the viewers own.
It is clear where its agenda and loyalties lie- this is a film with a liberal agenda on immigration, no apologies made about it. But in contrast to other such movies, it does so in a very small scale, true to life way. And I think it succeeds greatly over something like 'Lions for Lambs' which was too self conscious of its own agenda and which I wanted to love but just couldn't. The ending is perhaps a little contrived but even though it pulls at our heart strings, I don't think it is implausible that very likeable, vibrant people all over the world have very unjust things happen to them under the hand of the 'law'. Not implausible at all.
Another notable thing- this movie gets Professors, and academic life in general, right. Movie portrayals of professors and university life are often terrible cliches. Professor's in Hollywood are either impossibly handsome and inspiring (Robert Redford in 'Lions for Lambs'), cool, contrarian and 'with it' (Robin Williams in any role)...in a uniform of tweed blazers and khakis surrounded by students who spout off smart one liners apathetically....OR they are stuffy, pompous and boring (and thus obviously plump, with glasses and a bald head) or sleazy and lecherous (think Legally Blonde). And of course, they all have beautiful offices with carefully placed piles of books and fabulous views of green lawns full of laughing students throwing frisbees. The students they interact with are always supposedly bright hipsters who are too lazy to care about the world until the end of the film, when its too late. Yawn.
The 'Visitor' is different. There are so many 'that's so true' moments- the insular world of professors working on similar jargony papers, the things people say that academics secretly both revel in and cringe at ( 'you have four books you must be really intelligent'), the big-buffet like atmosphere of academic conferences with the mass exodus of people from convention hotels wearing their nametags like a veritable badge, the unwillingness to talk about work when its going badly, the excuses we make to ourselves when we know we're not doing anything, the excuses made by students...all those vignettes were refesrhingly honest and bang on.
5 stars, two thumbs up...whatever rating you prefer, consider it made.