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'The Visitor' Explores Cultural Barriers, Friendship Between Grief-Stricken Professor, Foreigners Who Inhabit His Home

A chance meeting leads to unexpected friendships that cross cultural barriers and open a new world of emotions in a poignant and timely drama written and directed by Tom McCarthy. Alan Silverman has a look at The Visitor.

University professor Walter Vale is adrift. For two years since the death of his wife he has withdrawn from most human contact, teaching few classes and keeping to himself and his memories. Then his college sends him to an academic conference in New York where Walter makes a discovery that jolts him back to reality: a pair of strangers in the Manhattan apartment where he and his wife had lived.

Walter's first impulse is to kick the couple out; but when he realizes Palestinian musician Tarek and Senegalese artist Zainab have no place to go, he invites them back in. The friendships that develop surprise Walter as he opens up to new experiences, such as playing an African drum along with Tarek; but reality comes crashing down again when a subway platform misunderstanding leads to Tarek's arrest.

Tarek is transferred from the police to an immigration detention center and Walter becomes a determined to free his new friend, in the process rediscovering a passion for life he had long been without.

American character actor Richard Jenkins stars as Walter.

"He is a very guarded man his whole life and it is hard for him to express himself and get close to someone; but, when I read it, I understood it (and felt) that this is someone I know or I could play this," Jenkins says.

Haaz Sleiman co-stars as Tarek and says his own life experience gave him insight into the character:

"I actually was born in the United Arab Emirates," notes Sleiman. "Then I moved to Lebanon when I was 10 and moved to the United States when I was 21 Michigan and then to New York, kind of like Tarek. So there's a similarity ...but Tarek also represents that culture. The Arabic culture is very friendly. Unfortunately, with everything that is happening, that is not in the forefront right now. Everything else that is bad kind of gets amplified and you miss on the other qualities of this culture and people. When the man reaches out and lets them back into his house, he almost owes him his life. So at that point it's a done deal. He is his best friend."

The international cast includes Palestinian-Israeli film star Hiam Abbass as Tarek's mother and Zimbabwean playwright-actress is Zainab.

"Having grown up in an African society myself I was sort of an odd girl because I grew up in a house where I was allowed to be rather loud-mouthed and a lot of girls aren't," Gurira says. "So I think that comes into a play a little bit for (Zainab) ...just the concept of being very extroverted is not something that is necessarily encouraged. That combined with the fact that she has been undervalued and demeaned in this society because she knows, legally, she is not really allowed to be here and she has experienced that. So it is definitely a combination of all those things."

Writer-director Tom McCarthy visited with undocumented immigrants at New York-area detention centers while researching the script to portray those scenes with as much realism as possible; however, he insists he did not set out to make a political statement with The Visitor.

"I don't want this to become a 'platform' movie," McCarthy says. "It is not a subject or a topic movie. It is a character story that has this element in it and I did not want it to be presented as 'the immigration movie.' There will be immigration movies coming out, but this is not that story. It is really about these four people connecting."

The Visitor was shot on location in New York City and features a soundtrack by Polish-born composer Jan Kaczmarek.