1-2-3 trumps 1-2-3-4. African drums trump classical piano in this sincere movie of the hope of life and renewal centered around political asylum, the CIS (Citizenship and Immigration Service), and bitter disappoint. Not all disappointments can be overcome. Don’t look for a neat ending.
Disheartened college professor Walter Vale lives in Connecticut where he teaches and tries to reclaim something of his former life with his deceased classical pianist wife by hiring one piano teacher after another to teach him—like his wife taught—to play piano the way his wife played piano. Of course, none will do.
Necessity in the form of a paper to present at a history conference in New York forces him out of his home in Connecticut to his unused, but still kept apartment in New York City where he finds a man and woman who believe—erroneously—they are legitimately renting the apartment from a friend of theirs. A couple of near misses at catastrophe lead to mutual comprehension of the situation and a peaceful compromise between the professorial apartment owner and the accidental tenants. The peaceful compromise leads to a new spark of life for Professor Vale, but a trapped drum in a subway turnstile leads to a CIS arrest for Tarek Khalil (Haaz Sleiman), one of the professor’s immigrant tenants who had previously been denied political asylum.
The touching story of The Visitor is handled truthfully and genuinely so that it never descends to pathetic sentimentalism. The story is sincere and the counterpoint of Tarek’s cheerful embrace of life syncopates with Professor Vale’s gloominess until he too catches the fire of feeling through the heartbeat of the drums. The relationship between the two women—Tarek’s girlfriend Zainab and his mother Mouna Khalil--when they meet after Tarek’s arrest is perfectly acted by Dainai Gurira (Zainab) and Hiam Abbass (Mouna). The subtle flashes of changing emotion in their eyes, the minute alterations of facial expressions tell their thoughts, shock, fear, disapproval so that their ultimate acceptance of each other is not only imminently believable but warmly encouraging.
The acting and directing, by Thomas McCarthy, make The Visitor live and, what’s more, lift it to a level that renders truth. Tarek’s mother is a singularly enriching addition introduced into the film halfway through. Abbass acts the role of Mouna so as to show a deep sorrow bred of prolonged suffering from events that seem inevitably inescapable and so as to lend the stamp of truth to the role.
The Visitor is rated PG-13 for strong language spoken in the CIS impoundment center. This is a film that will be good for any mature teenagers to see and for all feeling adults to see. The emotions are subtle and intricately painful so the import may allude some younger teens, but the professor’s story of the loss of self and its rediscovery that runs alongside Tarek’s, Zainab’s and Mouna’s story of the quest for freedom of self is evident enough that even young teens will be touched by these parts of the film. And to end with the beginning, the 1-2-3 of the African drum beat trumps the 1-2-3-4 of the classical piano Vale’s wife played, while ironically helping Vale to find his selfhood and helping Tarek, Zainab and Mouna to lose their freedom of selfhood.
The Visitor (2007)
Thomas McCarthy – Director
Thomas McCarthy – Writer
Richard Jenkins – Professor Walter Vale
Haaz Sleiman – Tarek Khalil
Hiam Abbass – Mouna Khalil
Dainai Gurira – Zainab