By Tony Sheppard
Written and Directed by Tom McCarthy
At a time when the summer blockbusters are long gone, the Oscar-season contenders are not yet in theaters, and the box office is dominated by complete fantasies about talking dogs and well-funded high school arts programs, it's nice to take a step back and remember what might be the best movie of the year so far.
In "The Visitor," Richard Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a college professor whose life has lost all passion. His wife is dead, his job no longer excites him, and his colleagues accommodate his half-hearted attempt at writing because it keeps him out of their hair and the classroom. During a reluctant trip to New York for a conference that doesn't interest him, Walter unexpectedly finds a young couple living in an apartment he owns but which he has rarely visited since his wife's death.
The couple, Tarek and Zainab, are illegal both as sub-tenants in the apartment and as aliens in the country. But the unlikely encounter causes a tentative bond to form between the lonely older man and the vulnerable pair and as time passes Walter, the unexpected host, finds himself drawn to the native drum that Tarek plays in clubs and in the park. What follows is best left to be experienced but involves the outcomes of immigration law and the often faceless and anonymous system that is tasked with enforcing it.
Richard Jenkins is the type of career character actor who we see but rarely celebrate. He brings a dignity and believability to even smaller or lighter roles (such as this year's "Step Brothers" and "Burn After Reading"). In "The Visitor," as Walter, he achieves a career-high performance as a very ordinary man overwhelmed by life's arbitrariness. For writer/director Tom McCarthy, it's a stunning follow-up to his earlier award-winning work in "The Station Agent," another tale of a disaffected man who feels detached from the world around him.
Earlier this year I had an opportunity to chat with McCarthy and actor Haaz Sleiman, who played Tarek. The following question and response (from McCarthy) is excerpted from an interview that was previously published in Capitol Weekly. We were discussing the nature of immigration laws, their necessity, and the manner in which they are applied and enforced:
CW: Was the issue really the idea that people get arrested and deported, because at some level people have broken certain laws or haven't had permission to enter, or is the message on the political side of the movie more about the callousness of it and the complete disregard for people and families and relationships?
Tom McCarthy: Yeah – I think that's a nice way to put it, it doesn't just say hey we need to open our borders and we need to erase these laws from our books, I mean that's just ridiculous. We need laws, we need to enforce them, we need people to abide by them, we need people to know there are consequences and need people to pay those consequences if the laws are broken… I think what this movie tries to do is just remind people that this is a human issue, first and foremost, it's not a political issue, it's a social issue and if we approach it that way, I think there are things we can do better. As an American, as a proud American, as a man who believes these laws have to be enforced and there has to be ways to do it -it's just time to suddenly, really analyze how we're treating people and say, OK, as a country that sets a high standard for other countries, can we live up to that standard and can we do things better? And I think that answer's simple: The answer's yes, of course we can do it better, and I think that's as political as I get in this movie.
"The Visitor," Jenkins, and McCarthy deserve to be remembered during this year's awards season. The DVD deserves to be remembered during gift-buying season. And immigration law, and the way we treat those who violate it, deserves to be remembered always, regardless of how many failed banks have managed to capture our attention.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Directed by Christian Mungiu
Another political hot button issue is at the center of another recent DVD release. "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" depicts the difficulties and extreme risks faced by a young woman, and her friend, attempting to obtain an illegal abortion in 1980's Romania. The film achieves a remarkable level of authenticity in recreating the era and it almost seems as though it were filmed 20 years ago and lost since then. This was a time and society dominated by shortages and the resultant black market opportunities for those willing to capitalize on misfortune. An abortion was a difficult and expensive proposition, but so was finding adequate basic food and hygiene products for day to day life.
This isn't a pleasant or easy film to watch, albeit it a good one, but it is powerfully illustrative of a controversial topic that remains timely as long as it's debated. Regardless of which side of the aisle one sits, driving certain activities underground can only add to the inherent problems, and even legal abortions are not without risk of traumatic consequences.