The immigration debate is singularly polarizing in our political climate today. From cries for "compassionately conservative" acceptance of those immigrants doing the jobs "Americans won't do," to Tom Tancredo's insistence that "the pope's immigration comments may have less to do with spreading the gospel than they do about recruiting new members of the church," the positions have grown so extreme that there no longer seems room for honest debate. Those uncomfortable with either the "open boarders and amnesty" or "deportation and walls" positions often find themselves without a political home, unable to engage an issue they feel calls for more ethical nuance.
And yet, this is exactly the inflammatory backdrop writer/director Thomas McCarthy chose for his latest offering, The Visitor, a quiet little film about a quiet little man overcome by a quiet, deep suffering. Walter Vale, a professor of economics at an anonymous Connecticut college, is struggling to cope with the passing of his dearly beloved wife. Affected by her death in ways that he seems unable to comprehend, he has allowed a crippling apathy to steal over his waning years. Delivering his lectures in a dull, disengaged monotone, ignoring requests for assistance from his students, he is a man going through the motions.
When Walter is called upon to deliver a presentation at a New York conference, he plans to head to his long-dormant apartment in the city and spend the evenings listening to music and ostensibly working on his new book. But the apartment is nowhere near as dormant as he was expecting; Tarek Khalil, a young Syrian musician, and Zainab, his Senegalese girlfriend, have been squatting there for months. This is too much even for mundane, mild-mannered Walter to take, and his first instinct is to demand they leave immediately; but once he discovers that his insistence will relegate them to a life on the street, he relents.
Walter's unusual gesture of generosity quickly bears fruit, as his unexpected houseguests slowly begin pulling him out of his apathetic shell. Zainab cooks and cleans, the three of them attend the night club where Tarek and his musician friends play, and the young Syrian even begins to teach Walter the djembe (a skin-covered, ethnic drum that is played with the bare hands).
But this new-found energy and hope is brought crashing down when Tarek is accosted in the New York subway and taken into custody. Walter assumes that the entire affair is simply an honest mistake, but he soon discovers that Tarek is an illegal alien who applied for and was denied political asylum several years ago, and is now in very real danger of being extradited. To make matters worse, Zainab (also an illegal) is hysterical with concern, yet unable to visit Tarek for fear of being caught herself. And now Tarek's mother, Mouna (illegal herself), arrives unannounced to investigate her son's sudden radio silence.
Able to travel to and from the detention center uninhibited, the professor becomes Tarek's link to the outside world, bringing him encouragement and love from his family and friends, as well as hope for his release. As the situation grows increasingly frustrating, Walter begins to recognize the transformative power of serving rather than being served, and of striving to live a meaningful life rather than settling for a passive existence. Walter's burgeoning transformation coincides with Mouna's appearance; his growing attachment to her provides some of the film's most unexpectedly charming moments.
McCarthy's extraordinary abilities as a writer and director, displayed so marvelously in his first film (the subtle and charmingly quirky Station Agent), are certainly put to the test here. A story that revolves so essentially about the topic of illegal immigration brings some significant built-in difficulties, and one might well wonder if his quiet storytelling-style would survive such a politically charged topic. Thankfully, those doubts are largely ill-founded here; whereas most directors build their political films around the message (see "Stone, Oliver"), McCarthy is more focused on his characters than on their ideologies. And while there are a number of moments where he veers into pontification – for instance, using the flag, Ellis Island, or the Statue of Liberty in ways that could be considered either snidely sarcastic or, at the very least, unhelpful – the majority of the time he stubbornly refuses to deal with the public-policy implications of his story.
Much like his work on The Station Agent, McCarthy is far more interested in the particular people he is creating than in the stereotypes or political principles they may embody. And while he is not above occasional commentary, the majority of the film is evenhanded and fair-minded, if not without bias. Interestingly, McCarthy does not lay the blame for Tarek's problems squarely on the failure of the American immigration system, as one might have expected from standard Hollywood fare. Walter's ardent soapbox moments decrying the unfairness of Tarek's imprisonment are cast against Mouna's revelation of another facet of her son's predicament, casting a more complex light on his situation.
While the film is not without its flaws – like The Station Agent, its ending is almost brutally abrupt, leaving the audience with the unsatisfying image of Walter pounding away on his djembe in the bowels of the New York subway – it is its willingness to confront the complexity of its story that really resonates. McCarthy's amazing grasp over the quiet yet complex details of his characters is precisely what makes his work so compelling. It is these same details, far more than the broad strokes of the story, that make the film a fascinating addition to the debate. It serves as the cinematic reminder of the words of Archbishop Charles Chaput, who speaks of the "bitterly concrete" details of this complex issue, and reminds us that "as Catholics, we need to think seriously about the human cost of the continuing immigration debate." And it is McCarthy's stubborn insistence on the accurate portrayal of the story's human aspects that makes it so truly memorable.