An economics professor in New England (Richard Jenkins), a widower deeply settled into his shell, reluctantly agrees to present a paper in New York, though his work no longer interests him nor makes him happy. Arriving at his unused-for-years apartment in the city, he stumbles upon a young Muslim immigrant couple occupying it, nearly causing heart attacks all around. The man, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), is from Syria, the woman (Danai Gurira) from Senegal. After satisfying himself that they had rented the apartment in good faith from a dishonest third-party, he ends up allowing them to stay, though he is not a people person: he can be bureaucratic with others, not because he’s mean but because he’s impatient with people who aren’t consigned as he is to pondering issues of global trade and the like. Still, he is quick to see the humanity in others: we can tell just by the tone in which he says their names that he has quickly come to see the young couple not as instances of an Arab immigrant and an African immigrant, but as individual humans (and friends). The film works in the same way. It is not an allegory; its characters are people, not symbols, and it is from their story that the film’s political points flow, not the other way around.
When we met the professor he was struggling without success to learn piano. It turns out that Tarek plays the hand drums; he teaches the professor some Afro-beat rhythms, and soon they are joining in on communal jams in Central Park. When slapping the congas, the professor is happy. There’s something about the immediacy of drumming that forces him to be in the moment. But when Tarek gets stopped by police in the subway, his illegal status is discovered and he gets sent to a bureaucratic privately-run detention center. His mother, a widow, comes over from Syria (she’s played by Hiam Abbass), and the story becomes a nicely-observed look at the tentative relationship between her and the professor. She suits him: his distant, gentle manner dovetails nicely with her culture’s formality in relations between men and women. He’s an open person at heart, and she shares that openheartedness: there’s a mutual, unspoken recognition that they’ve been given an unexpected chance to enjoy life together.
In the professor, writer/director Thomas McCarthy (“The Station Agent”) and Jenkins have crafted a character who rings true in all the details, down to the way Jenkins puts a bit more rhythm and pep into his step after he’s learned to drum. As Tarek, Sleiman is a beaming, vibrant, physical presence. But then, all the actors fully inhabit their characters. The movies are so often used to dehumanize; here is a film that does the opposite. A story of fundamentally decent people caught up in a maddening situation, this is a heartbreaking but deeply humanizing picture.
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)
- May 15, 2008