The Band's Visit
|Directed by||Eran Kolirin|
The eight members of an Egyptian Police Orchestra, toting their instruments and dressed in ill-fitting uniforms of robin’s-egg blue, arrive at a regional Israeli airport for a gig at the opening of a nearby Arab Cultural Center, and nobody shows up to meet them. They wait around for a while, and then ask at the information counter what bus to take into Betah Tikvah, their destination. But they get it wrong, and wind up in the dusty, wind-blown desert town of Petah Tikvah, far from the middle of nowhere. The Egyptian bandleader, Tawfiq (Sasson Gabai) approaches a sleepy café and asks the Israeli owner for directions to the Arab Cultural Center. Dina (Ronit Elkabetz) regards him with a sardonic half-smile. “Here there is no Arab culture,” she says. “Also, no Israeli culture. Here there is no culture at all.”
When it becomes clear that they have landed in the wrong place and that there’s no bus out until the next morning, the Egyptians reluctantly accept the hospitality of the locals. And so ensues a night of uneasy cultural détente. Two of the principal characters, Tawfiq and his young violinist/trumpeter Khaled (Saleh Bakri), are taken in by Dina. There’s a tension between the old-school Tawfiq and the hip young Khaled, which is finally softened by their mutual admiration for the great American jazz trumpeter Chet Baker.
A hesitant chemistry slowly develops between Dina and Tawfiq. He is a widower, she’s a divorcee. He is the one from a big city, Alexandria, but it is she who shows a worldly, amused sophistication and an unabashed sexiness. She prods the melancholy, stiffly reserved Tawfiq into taking her out to dinner. They pass an awkward but not uncomfortable evening, with the gregarious Dina gradually thawing Tawfiq and drawing him out just a little.
Across town, Simon (Khalifa Natour) and the other band members have been farmed out to the household of Dina’s brother Itzik (Rubi Moscovich). They sit awkwardly around the dinner table with his family searching for something to talk about. Music turns out to be a common denominator, and finally they all join in singing “Summertime.” Simon plays a fragment of his own music for Itzik on his clarinet. “I never finished it,” he admits – it was a sonata he was composing, but family and responsibilities got in the way. Later, after a row with his wife, Itzik joins Simon in his infant son’s room where the Egyptian is bunking. “Maybe this is how your sonata ends,” the Israeli says wistfully, gesturing at the simple surroundings. “Not sad, not happy. In a small room, and tons of loneliness.”
The Band’s Visit has pathos, but it is also very funny. In a scene that is truly Chaplinesque, Khaled accompanies a café loafer, Papi (Shlomi Avraham) on his date to the dreary local roller disco, and gives the painfully shy young man some hands-on instruction in the finer points of courtship.
The performances are wonderful. Gabai has a face a little like Vincent Price’s crammed into a slipper, and he maintains his reserve as if afraid something might break if he allowed a change of expression to cross his features. Tawfiq is fiercely protective of his dignity as head of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, and uncomfortably aware of the ludicrousness of his situation. Elkabetz calls to mind a young Irene Papas, sensuous and intelligent, her face alive with a mordant humor and a poignant longing for something beyond the dusty confines of her provincial world. As a girl, she tells Tawfiq, she adored Egyptian movies and was in love with Omar Sharif. When they played on TV, the streets were empty, with everyone inside watching. But now they don’t air Egyptian movies here any more.
A funny thing happened to The Band’s Visit on the way to the Oscars. It was expected to be a contender for Foreign Language Film honors, but it was ruled ineligible. Because of the characters’ Arabic-Israeli language barrier, they communicate in English, and the Academy disallowed it for too much English language dialogue. Ironically, the producers have decided to subtitle that dialogue in English, although most of it is perfectly understandable, and the titles only clutter up the screen.
Israeli writer-director Eran Kolirin, making his feature film debut, handles his material for the most part with pitch-perfect understatement. This is a movie about people from warring cultures who, left to their own devices, find common ground and relate to each other with sympathetic understanding as human beings should. In this setting, far from the stress lines of the hatreds of their respective societies, they do just that. There is hardly any reference to Arab-Israeli tension. “Once, not long ago, a small Egyptian police band arrived in Israel,” a voice tells us over the opening credits. “Not many remember this. It was not that important.”
But these are the important things, the surprising discoveries that remind us of our shared humanity, and the human comedy that unites us all.
© Text 2008 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be