The Band's Visit
2007, PG-13, 87 min. Directed by Eran Kolirin. Starring Shlomi Avraham, Saleh Bakri, Ronit Elkabetz, Sasson Gabai, Uri Gavriel, Imad Jabarin, Ahuva Keren, François Khell.
REVIEWED By Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., March 7, 2008
With their epaulet-fringed uniforms and expressionless faces, the eight members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra would be noticeable anywhere; lined up like powder-blue deadpan ducks on the side of the road in the tiny Israeli desert town of Bet Hatikva, however, they look like visitors from another planet – which I suppose they are, Egypt and Israel being neighbors in geography only and always just a couple of wrong chess moves away from outright antagonism. But Jewish cafe owner Dina (Elkabetz) isn’t interested in politics or history. She and her friends are simply bored to death in Bet Hatikva and therefore happy to take the band members, who had the misfortune of getting on the wrong bus during a tour, into their world for the night, if for no other reason than to experience something different. On paper, The Band’s Visit sounds like a setup for some feel-good absurdist comedy: a fish-out-of-water story in a land without fish or water, a desert Northern Exposure. But Kolirin isn’t interested in cultural differences; he’s concerned with loneliness and human detachment, two issues that transcend borders and language barriers. The orchestra’s leader, Tawfiq (Gabai), is a man who relies on ceremonial exactitude and social distance to hide his regrets and sadness, while Dina wears her scars and gashes on her sleeve for all to see. The other members of the band are lost souls who can barely speak to one another, while their Israeli hosts spend their time trying in vain to start relationships or save them. In Bet Hatikva, everyone – local, guest, Jew, Arab – is staring into a great abyss, and the only thing pulling them back is music: When conversation at the home of one Israeli family turns embittered, a spontaneous performance of Gershwin’s “Summertime” salves the wounds; the quiet desperation of the group’s clarinetist finds voice in a homespun concerto; even the cosmically detached Tawfiq, who seems light years away from romanticism, is incredulous when Dina asks him why a police department would need a band: “That,” he answers, “is like asking why a man needs a soul.” In a world where everyone is damaged and citizens from neighboring countries have to rely on broken English to communicate, music is a lifeline and the quickest route between two distant points. By the time Tawfiq, Dina, and the band’s boy Lothario, Haled (Bakri), commiserate over “My Funny Valentine” in the film’s sublime third act, writer/director Kolirin has created a remarkable world where no struggle is too severe to overcome with a little empathy and the Great American Songbook on your side.