12 December 2008

I'm just visiting

Who is Richard Jenkins? That may not be a name that reaches out and grabs you, but he’s an actor who’s been in, oh…about a million movies and TV shows. His role as the dead Nathaniel Fisher in the HBO series Six Feet Under is probably the one that would jog the memories of most people.

In the movie, The Visitor (2007), he plays an economics professor named Walter Vale. Vale, a widower, leads a dreary, nondescript existence. He’s sent by the chair of his department to a New York City conference to present a paper that he supposedly co-authored with someone else. When he arrives at his apartment in the city, he finds it inhabited by a young couple, a Syrian man and a Senegalese woman. Some unscrupulous character named “Ivan” has been accepting rent for the apartment.

After some initial confusion, Vale invites them to stay with him. It’s obvious who “the visitor” in this movie is. Haaz Sleiman plays Tarek, who introduces Vale to the wonders of the djembe, the African drum that’s one of the joys of his life. His other joy is Zainab, played by Danai Gurira. Another “visitor” is Tarek’s mother, Mouna, played by Hiam Abbass. (All of these actors are, of course, household names!) I suppose the greatest sense of being “the visitor” comes when Vale confesses to Mouna, “I pretend.” He pretends to be busy, to be a writer, to have a life. He’s a visitor in his own life.

This is a very fine film about the ways we pretend—the ways we sometimes hold back and say, “I’m just visiting.”

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