The Band’s Visit—a great new Egyptian-Israeli film from director Eran Kolirin—was rejected as a foreign language film nominee by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences for containing too much English and not enough of its native language. The academy didn’t “get it”, but hopefully you will.
Kolirin has fashioned an exacting and poignant commentary on the cultural, age, and class barriers between his characters, negotiating the gap, more often than not, with music—the universal language—as his bridge. This is shown in various scenes throughout, as words fail his characters and they resort to musical expression, all the more appropriate when we consider who these characters are: the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra.
A bit of text at the start of the film sets the stage: “Once, not long ago, an Egyptian Police band arrived in Israel. Not many remember this…it wasn’t that important.” First we see a van, a man carries a yellow ball and exits the frame. So does the van, and we’re left staring at our protagonists—a mix of old and young musicians, all dressed in scarab blue uniforms and police hats.
The band of eight is led by Lieutenant-colonel Tawfiq Zacharya (Sasson Gabai), a stern and proper older gentleman who exhibits great pride towards the uniform he wears and the position he holds; so much so that he has difficulty tolerating the suave and unfocussed Haled (Saleh Bakri), who complains often and is easily sidetracked by various women (using “Do you like Chet Baker?” as his pickup-line of choice). Then there’s Simon, Tawfiq’s right-hand-man, of a sort, who stops Tawfiq from clobbering Haled on more than one occasion and has been with him long enough to understand his admittedly off-putting nature.
Soon we learn the purpose of the band’s visit; they have an appointment to play at the Arab Culture Center in Bet Hatikva. However, due to a miscommunication at the bus station, the group finds themselves in Petah Tikva, a middle-of-nowhere town with no hotel.
This may seem like a trite setup, but what follows is anything but. First, Tawfiq and party check in with the locals and Dina (Ronit Elkabetz)—a vibrant and sexy restaurant owner—informs the group of their predicament. Tawfiq finds himself in a corner, he hates to inconvenience anyone, but when he’s told that there will be no more buses for the day he has little choice but to accept Dina’s offer of food and shelter for the night.
It’s agreed that Dina will take Tawfiq and Haled in her home, and two other men—who sit outside Dina’s diner like the vultures in The Jungle Book—will provide shelter for the remaining musicians. They stay for only one night, but Kolirin manages to address the delicate relations between his band and the townsfolk of Petah Tikva, utilizing silence, comedy, light-drama and the universality of music.
Several great scenes demonstrate this, such as a clever sequence at the home of Itzik (Rubi Moskovitz), in which the visitors—arriving during his young daughter’s birthday party—have inconvenienced him. Itzik and his family sit uncomfortably across from Simon and another member of the band at the dinner table when Itzik’s father begins speaking of his days as a musician, in an attempt to drum up conversation. It doesn’t go well until he begins to sing one of his favorite songs from his youth, “Summertime”. Before long the entire dinner table has erupted in song, a scene demonstrating music’s ability to unite these very different people.
In another scene, one of the band members attempts to use a payphone, guarded by a simpleton who waits endlessly for his girlfriend to call. Annoyed by this intrusion, the simpleton begins to whistle, first quietly, then louder and directly at the confused musician.
Throughout the night we watch as relationships blossom and secrets are revealed. Dina convinces Tawfiq to come out with her; they visit a modest little bar and sit in the window, talking about music and its influence over them. At one point Dina dismisses Tawfiq’s great admiration for classical music, asking him why it’s so important to him, to which Tawfiq replies, “That’s like asking a man why he needs his soul.” This line, in the hands of another director and delivered by a different actor, could seem heavy-handed, but in context with Tawfiq’s readily apparent spiritualism, and thanks to the subtlety Kolirin lends the scene, the moment feels authentic.
There are many moments like this, such as a hilarious but poignant scene in which Haled teaches Papi (Shimi Avraham) how to woo his date at a roller disco. The balance of comedy and achingly sincere drama makes for a miniature miracle, and proves Kolirin’s considerable talent as a director. He also owes a lot to his actors, particularly the two leads. Gabai installs a world-weary wisdom and emotional stoicism in Tawfiq that lends itself to the tone of the film, and Elkabetz plays Dina with a tough exterior, contrasting her tender and vulnerable expressions.
Loneliness permeates every scene in The Band’s Visit, from the stoic expressions on each character’s face to the visual compositions—many frames simply show us a small empty room. In fact, in one scene, a character, commenting on Simon’s unfinished concerto, suggests that this be how his piece should conclude, “like a small room, with a lamp, and a baby in her crib.” No large gesture is needed, he insists, and perhaps this may be the only blunder in Kolirin’s film as he doesn’t exactly take his own advice for the film’s conclusion—understatement is abandoned in favor of sentimental togetherness. Though it’s not a bad ending at all; at most a little clichéd. It doesn’t much matter though, as I don’t think the destination of his characters ever interested Kolirin much; the filmmaker is far more intrigued by what he can teach them along the way.
This DVD release contains a short and sweet making-of feature, The Band’s Visit: Making The Fairy Tale, which sees Kolirin hardly able to contain his excitement for the finished product, careful to stay modest, but obviously proud of his film. The various actors feel the same way, noting its cultural importance—“of course it’s significant,” insists Elkabetz, referring to the collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian artists—and praising Kolirin for the film’s “realism and absurdity” (Elkabetz again). Kolirin also, wisely, expresses his favoritism towards laughs that are “charged emotionally,” and admits that he’s far more interested in the moments before a line is read, and learning “where the line comes from.”