Standing straight and still in their crisp powder blue uniforms, members of Egypt’s Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra wait. They’ve just arrived at an airport in Israel, and, surrounded by signs that are not translated into Arabic, they’re unsure how to proceed to the small town where they’re scheduled to perform at the opening of a new Arab Cultural Center in Beit Hatkiva. As they wait, instrument cases by their sides, they look at once expectant and forlorn, disciplined and wholly unprepared.
The opening images of The Band’s Visit hint at possibilities, the rewards that may be reaped from embracing the unexpected. And yet, as the band members wait for their visit to begin, they also embody the chance that no such change will occur, that their new experience will reinforce what they’ve known before. As the movie embraces possibility, it also underscores its strangeness, and so, its significance and consequence.
The first step forward in Israeli filmmaker Eran Kolirin’s first feature is taken by the band’s conductor, the exceedingly courteous General Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai). Trying to reach his designated hosts by pay phone, he finds little help. His self-confident young violinist Khaled (Saleh Bakri) offers to get directions to the town they’re supposed to visit, but as he gently seduces the young woman at the information booth — emulating his favorite singer, Chet Baker, as he croons “My Funny Valentine” — he also mistakes the name of the town. And so the band takes a bus to the wrong place. Surrounded by desert and blue sky, they learn there’s no transportation out until the next day.
Though the men are more or less willing to follow Tewfiq as he instructs them, they are also, as Khaled speaks up, hungry and tired. Out of Israeli currency and in need of lodging, they accept an offer from Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), proprietor of the only café in sight, to put them up for the night. She offers to take a couple, and arranges for the others to stay with her employees. Their experiences of the evening form the film’s plot, as band members accept hospitality from strangers and learn something about themselves. Premised on fundamental conflicts between Arab and Israeli characters, their life lessons are rendered simultaneously timeless and urgent.
Initiated by miscommunication — at some moment in the English–language exchange between Khaled and the airport information clerk, the name of the town is misspoken — the Egyptians’ encounter with Israelis is structured as three exceedingly polite, precisely outlined adventures. Reluctant to remove their uniform caps, their jackets buttoned throughout any interactions with their hosts, the band members speak to one another in Arabic, watch as their hosts speak Hebrew, and wait for the next morning to dawn, at which point they will move on.
Each encounter is slightly different. Along with a couple of others, Tewfiq’s lieutenant, Simon (Khalifa Natour) ends up at the home of Itzik (Rubi Moscovich), who lives with his parents and whose wife resents the fact that he’s brought uninvited guests home on her birthday. His father recalls his own past as a musician (his group played “all songs,” he says proudly, from the Beatles and Rolling Stones to klezmer), leading the table in a tentative rendition of “Summertime” (“Fish are jumping/The cotton is high/Oh your daddy’s rich/Your mamas good looking”), before everyone retreats to his or her own corner, the family tensions relegating the band members to respectful silence.
At the same time, the undaunted Khaled invites himself along on a double date with Papi (Shlomi Avraham) (“I just look on the city,” he assures Papi, “No problem”). The contrast between the two men is stark and hackneyed: self-styled ladies’ man Khaled is handsome and self-confident, certainly experienced. Papi is utterly naïve, afraid even to speak to girls, and so his night at the disco roller rink begins badly: when his designated date (the “gloomy girl”) asks him skate, he’s so unnerved he actually pushes her away and she falls: she spends the rest of the night seated alone, tearful and distressed — until at last Khaled offers Papi instruction on how to speak to her and even put his arm around her.
Intercut with this contrived scene is the film’s emotional focus, an evening shared by Tewfiq and Dina. As each gradually reveals the fundamental loss that has shaped his or her own life, they share as well their own versions of passion. Melancholy and repressed, the general is nonetheless moved by Dina’s story of movies — Arab movies she enjoyed as a child, starring Omar Sharif, igniting in her an apparently endless desire for such a dashing hero. Though Tewfiq cannot embody this fantasy for her, Dina offers herself as conduit for cross-cultural connection. It’s a familiar role for a woman in movies, and Dina’s earthy, tender generosity visibly moves the men who come near her. Perhaps their exposure to movies is not as extensive as hers. Or perhaps they have seen the movies she so loves, and in her eyes, imagine themselves as next generational approximations of Omar Sharif.