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The Lens: Welcome 'Visitor'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Richard Jenkins is superb as the professor, though his "coming out" is slow and methodical. (And, to me at first, it seemed unlikely. Perhaps that is precisely the point.) He's also an appropriate actor for the piece as he had been a regular on "Six Feet Under." This guy's already there. He's robotic, though his default mode seems to be as a martinet. He treats a student's late paper with a cold dismissal. He has been given permission by the college to teach only one course while he works on his next book. It becomes clear, however, that he is not at work on anything.

What's most attractive about the flick, aside from Jenkins' performance, is its literary quality. Little clues are dropped at one point in the movie that are then picked up in a different context later. A bit novelistic in construction, and very poetic, too.

When the story opens, Walter Vale (Jenkins) is trying, to no avail, to learn to play the piano. Twenty minutes or so later (in film time), he is in his New York pied-a-terre, and a young fellow asks about his wife. We learn he'd taken lessons with her years before. The encounter not only confirms that Vale is a widower but lets us see that his initial desire to learn to play is clearly a subconscious desire to reconnect with her. It also sets us up for his subsequent interest in drums, though frankly that is the last instrument one might have expected to entice him.

"Music" is a motif (yes, the English teacher picks up on this) that runs (no surprise) like a recurring melody throughout the film; it reaches a powerful, effective climax in the movie's final scene, which I won't spoil. Except to say that, like all good cinema, the moment is a purely visual, and utterly wordless, expression of the "hero's" state of mind here at the end. He's clearly feeling, and he is showing what he is feeling.

The film, besides being a poignant and sympathetic portrait of the professor's midlife salvation, is also, perhaps unintentionally, a plea for a more sympathetic national attitude to immigration. The couple whom Vale meets - a Syrian musician and a Senegalese jewelry designer - are not only handsome and lovely, respectively, but are hard-working and clearly contributing at differing levels of intensity to the life of the New York around them. Vale meets and, in an appropriately gallant and distant way, dates the Syrian man's mother - another articulate and useful member of American society. But she, too, has been caught up in the clutches of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (ironic term, that).

She is, in fact, the fourth potential eponymous nominee for the film's title. All three immigrants are genuine visitors, though not entirely welcome ones. Vale himself is a visitor, too: He visits the city apartment he has kept for years but never returned to, presumably since his wife's death. By the end, though, he is an intruder into life - caught up by the truly alive immigrants and rescued from a life of ambulatory desiccation. It proves to be not a happy ending but an undeniably reassuring, life-affirming one.

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