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10th April
written by Mad Cow

Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.

Mad Cow’s Rating:  three cowbells

I was just reading in The New Yorker about entire families of immigrants who are currently living in jail cells awaiting word on their applications for asylum in the United States. No toys for the children, not to mention fresh air, and no privacy for anyone, even with toileting. Last month I reviewed Under the Same Moon, about immigration, and here I am again, really by coincidence. There’s a lot out there about illegal immigration and this “land of the free.” Something is going on in our national psyche, and although I didn’t purposely seek out another immigration film, I’m glad I found this one.

This modest little film is a hidden gem. Written and directed by Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent), it takes on a variety of political themes while telling a story of the intimate lives of ordinary people. Or maybe not ordinary, just extraordinary in the way that all persons are. They are interesting and worth our attention and caring.

Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins, best known as the father on Six Feet Under) is an economics professor at Connecticut College, living the proverbial life of quiet desperation. Lonely and detached, and still mourning his wife after we don’t know how long – an important omission- he is simply existing. It’s left to us to decide whether he is temporarily grieving or simply a man who has never been in touch with his feelings. Sent to New York by his department chair to deliver a paper at a conference, he goes to the apartment that he owns in Greenwich Village. There he surprises a couple who have been living in said apartment, wrongly believing that the person to whom they were paying rent actually owned it.

It took me a little while to get over the devastating envy I experienced when I realized that this college professor has both an enormous house in Connecticut and a Greenwich Village apartment with two bedrooms. But I digress. The two inhabitants, Tarek Khalil (Haaz Sleiman) from Syria and Zainab (Danai Gurira) from Senegal are undocumented workers with nowhere else to go. Walter offers them shelter and gradually gets to know them. Tarek is a natural free spirit, friendly and generous, who encourages Walter to express himself. Walter takes drum lessons from Tarek and works to establish friendly cordiality with shy and stand-offish Zainab. When the INS finds Tarek and takes him away, Walter emerges from a cocoon of depressive detachment in an attempt to help.

Politics mix with emotions as we go with Walter to the detention center where Tarek is kept, and when we ride the Staten Island Ferry and view the Statue of Liberty (“Mother of Exiles”) with Zainab. Whatever happened, we’re supposed to think, of “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”? And we do think that. But we are also interested in what will happen to Tarek, Zainab, and Tarek’s beautiful mother, Mouna Khalil (Hiam Abbass) who has come to New York to help her son and may be a romantic match for Walter.

One can read this film as a stereotypical story of the musical, easy-going brown person lending some rhythm to the white guy, not to mention devotion and gratitude. And some will see it this way. To my mind, the understatedness of the characters, especially Walter, undermines this interpretation. Walter does not change into someone else and Tarek, while appreciative, does not adore him.  Zainab doesn’t particularly like him and this is not a secret.  Also, Tarek, Zainab and Moura are well-drawn characters, not foils for Walter.  On the other hand, seen as a metaphor, the film may be making a statement about what white Americans need to learn from the rest of the world.

Walter is vulnerable to Tarek’s criticism, forced to acknowledge Tarek’s claim that Walter couldn’t possibly understand what Tarek is experiencing. Walter’s outrage at his friend’s mistreatment springs not only from sympathy but from the disbelief that comes from whit privilege. He – and many of the white Americans watching this film – has perhaps not been paying enough attention to the injustice that occurs all around us.  Still, the people in this story stand on their own. The best “metaphoric” characterizations work this way. It’s rare that we are touched by intellectual axioms. The plight of complex, real people is what penetrates the viewer of this movie. Thanks to the restrained subtle performances from all four of the major players, I’m still thinking about these people and wondering what they’re doing now.

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