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The Visitor is welcome anytime

Almost perfect film is downgraded only because … well, you’re going to have to read on.

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The following is a bare-bones synopsis of writer-director Thomas McCarthy’s latest film, The Visitor. A lonely man keeps to himself upon losing someone dear to him. He then meets an energetic stranger who helps recharge his broken spirit. A couple of women also enter his life and help to reawaken his tender side.

Now read it again and apply it to McCarthy’s only other film, the much-lauded indie favorite The Station Agent (2003). Funny how that works. McCarthy wrote and directed both films, and both are terrific if you buy in from the get-go that strangers from wildly different backgrounds can form intimate bonds in a short time. Give McCarthy credit, because it works.

Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins, the dead father on Six Feet Under) is the lonely man at the heart of The Visitor. He’s 62, recently widowed and going through the motions of his day-to-day life as an economics professor in Connecticut. He goes to New York to present a paper at a conference, and when he shows up at the apartment that he’s kept for many years, he is surprised to find two strangers living there. They are equally surprised to see him; they rented the place from a guy named Ivan, whom Walter does not know.

The strangers are a couple, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira). He is from Syria, she from Senegal. He is warm, friendly and outgoing; she is reserved, suspicious, a little frightened. He is a musician; she makes jewelry and sells it on street corners. They are good people, and they are in the country illegally.

The film carries a harsh statement about post-9/11 immigration procedures when Tarek gets arrested and put into a detention center in Queens, where other illegals in the same situation have sat and waited for months, maybe years. But what McCarthy does so skillfully is that he doesn’t beat us over the head with the message. The immigration story, while timely, relevant and compelling, is the backdrop to a simpler story about human connection.

Walter watches Tarek and Zainab pack their belongings and walk out the door. They leave behind a photo of the two of them, which Walter studies for a few moments — enough time to convince him that these foreigners are no threat. He goes after them and invites them back. They gratefully accept — just for a few days, Tarek assures him, until they can make other arrangements.

They maintain polite distance, but walls are broken down quickly as Tarek makes conversation, Zainab cooks dinner, and Walter tags along to one of Tarek’s gigs. Walter begins to experience a renewed appreciation for the city and its diversity. On a lunch break from his conference at NYU, he marvels at two young men drumming on buckets in Washington Square Park, and after a couple of drum lessons and encouragement from Tarek, ends up sitting in with a drum circle in Central Park. That particular scene is the first time we see Walter experience any kind of uninhibited joy in the film. It is short-lived, however, when Tarek gets arrested in the subway.

Walter does what he can for Tarek — visits him in detention, brings notes from Zainab, who cannot go there for fear she’ll be detained, too, and pays for a lawyer to take on Tarek’s cause — but ultimately it is not enough . Zainab leaves Walter’s place to stay with a relative and Walter makes plans to return to Connecticut; that is, until Mouna knocks on his door.

Mouna (Hiam Abbass) is Tarek’s mother, who lives in Michigan and is used to a daily phone call from her son. She hasn’t heard from him in days. Walter explains the situation and extends his hospitality to Mouna, going so far as to postpone his trip back to Connecticut to show her where Tarek is being detained and to introduce her to Zainab. The women’s shared anguish over Tarek’s situation bonds them, and allows us to see the vulnerable side of the usually stoic Zainab. There are hints at romance between Walter and Mouna, but of course the issue of getting Tarek out of detention looms and puts anything more serious on hold.

The Visitor is lovely in the same way The Station Agent was lovely. It’s about interesting people worth caring about, and it’s a feel-good movie despite the frustrating immigration issues and despite the fact that it’s not all tied up in a neat bow. I loved everything about it, except one thing, which may seem nitpicky, but it rattled me. If you know anything about music, it’ll rattle you, too. There’s a scene where Tarek is teaching Walter how to play the drum and very pointedly makes the statement that the African beat is in 3/4 time, not 4/4, like the classical music Walter is used to hearing. But when Tarek starts playing, he’s not playing in any way, shape or form a three-beat measure; he’s playing in four. In fact, of the several scenes where Tarek plays his drum, only once is the beat in three. This bizarre error detracts from an otherwise four-star film.

The Visitor

Three and 1/2 stars

Stars: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman and Danai Jekesai Gurira

Director: Thomas McCarthy

Rated: PG-13 for brief strong language

Theaters: The Grand Cinema

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