The characters find a common ground and a basis for communication through the primal beat of a drum, one of the oldest and most universal forms of speech known to man.

As he did with “The Station Agent,” Tom McCarthy forges a community of outsiders with “The Visitor,” an endearing serio-comedy that explores the immigration issue with intelligence and compassion.


It’s so good, I can guarantee it will even melt the vitriol in an old, cranky xenophobe like Lou Dobbs. So imagine what it will do for you.


Having already been there, I can say without reservations that it’s the closet thing to nirvana to grace the big screen yet this year. Ditto for its star, the celebrated character actor Richard Jenkins.


Richard who?


OK, you probably never heard of him, but you’ve likely seen his face a thousand times before in everything from “There’s Something About Mary” to the grumpy, dead father on “Six Feet Under.”


And it’s that anonymous familiarity that makes him so convincing as a lapsed intellectual whose will to teach, write and live died along with his beloved wife.


In a lot of ways, he’s a clone of Dennis Quaid’s nutty professor from “Smart People.” But unlike Quaid’s unsavory lout, you love Jenkins from the get-go.


No knock on Quaid, but the difference between what the two actors bring to the table is grossly disparate. Where Quaid was affected, Jenkins is affecting and where Quaid was sub par, Jenkins is sublime, bringing tomes of subtext and originality to what could have been just another cliché.


It’s early, I know, but if Jenkins isn’t one of the five nominees walking the red carpet at the Kodak Theater in February, I will be shocked.


Credit, though, must be shared with McCarthy – also a character actor (“Syriana,” HBO’s “The Wire”) – who has not only scripted a story laced with charm and emotion, he’s directed it with the grace and fluidity of a Scorsese or an Eastwood.


Every scene, every camera angle and every word of dialogue is perfectly rendered, and his use of his adopted home of New York as a character is so marvelously original it feels like you’re experiencing the city for the first time.


Which is exactly the point of McCarthy’s parable about the dangers of living in an insular world, shut away from the realm of possibility and the chance to see old things in new ways.


Jenkins’ Walter Vale is such a man when we first meet him sleepwalking through life, intrigued only by an obsession to learn to play the piano like his late wife. It’s his last and only connection to her, and he holds on to it desperately.


Then fate steps in, as does the film’s one glaring contrivance. Traveling from Connecticut for a conference, Walter heads to the rarely used flat he and his wife kept in Manhattan. Opening the door (both to the apartment and possibility), Walter finds the place occupied by a pair of illegal Muslim immigrants: the gorgeous Zainab (Danai Gurira) from Senegal and her Syrian drummer boyfriend Tarek (Haaz Sleiman).


Improbably, they form a tight bond, especially Walter and Tarek, who find a common ground and a basis for communication through the primal beat of a drum, one of the oldest and most universal forms of speech known to man.


It’s hilarious seeing Walter, a balding man in his 60s, playing in a Central park drum line with a dozen immigrants much younger and darker than him. He’s the proverbial fish out of water, or so we think.


McCarthey has other ideas, and they are indeed sound ones, that call into question antiquated U.S. immigration laws that allow people to simply be snatched from the streets, locked up and often moved, or deported, without notice to friends or relatives.


Like most of us, Walter is unfamiliar with such injustices until the afternoon Tarek is dragged away, falsely accused of jumping a subway gate. Freeing him not only becomes a cause for Walter, it becomes a defibrillator for his dormant heart thanks to Tarek’s beautiful but distressed mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass).


When it’s over you feel devastated. But you also feel invigorated in the knowledge of how many ways a stranger can change your life.


The Patriot Ledger