Grief is both the thematic underpinning and the overarching aura in this low key, but absorbing and powerful film. Although “The Visitor” is humanistic and realistic, memories of the dead loom over the characters here like silent watchful ghosts. Written and directed by Tom McCarthy, “The Visitor” explores issues of identity and place, belonging and connection, as well as immigration and other post 9/11 issues, but it primarily revolves around a bereaved economics professor named Walter Vale, played by Richard Jenkins, the subtle actor who so memorably played the ghostly Fisher father in my favorite television series of all time, “Six Feet Under.” Jenkins literally inhabits the character, and while the circumstances of the wife’s death are never specified, he carries the weight of grief in his hunched shoulders and furrowed brow, in his every moment, movement and nuance.
When circumstance forces Vale to present a paper at NYU, he finds a pair of young, undocumented squatters at his long unused Village apartment, Tarek, a Syrian musician and his Senaglese girlfriend, Zainab. He begins a kind of comeback, as a warm and paternal relationship develops between him and Tarek, and when Tarek introduces him to the New York City jazz scene. Particularly powerful is a scene in which this balding white man joins in an African drumming circle in Washington Square Park, and the scenes between Vale and Tarek’s mother, who arrives when Tarek is detained by the authorities. This woman is also burdened by grief over the death of her government-murdered Syrian husband, and the relationship is believable and adult, the rare vision of an astute director who although young understands these two grieving people who reach out to each other.
“The Visitor” is memorable for its deep understanding that the journey back from grief is composed of small, often unexpected steps rather than a giant leap, but also for its remarkable embrace of life in all its complexity, ambiguity, and possibility.
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