The Israelis had enough faith in The Band’s Visit, the feature debut from writer/director Eran Kolirin, that they offered it up to the Oscars as their country’s Best Foreign Language Film. The Academy rejected it, however, because better than half of the movie is in English, the common language shared by the film’s Arab and Israeli characters. Ironically, the Israelis went with their second choice, the military picture Beaufort, which ended up earning itself a nomination.
Still, eligibility aside, The Band’s Visit is a charming little drama that skirts sentimentality and manages to be a feel-good film without necessarily feeling very good.
An eight-man Egyptian police band arrives in Israel to play a concert at an Arab cultural center, but their ride from the airport never appears, so bandleader Lt. Col. Zacharya (Sasson Gabai) sends attractive and insubordinate ladies’ man Haled (Saleh Bakri) to sort out what bus they should take to the gig. Of course, they end up in the wrong town, a backwater Israeli settlement that has nothing going on, and there’s no way out until the next day. Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), a saucy café owner, takes pity on the musicians, finds them beds for the night and takes Zacharya out for an impromptu date.
So, yes, it is something of the standard fish-out-of-water-in-a-small-town premise, and it has its share of quirks, but Kolirin pulls it off without resorting to sappiness. The Band’s Visit is really about loneliness and feeling disconnected from the people around us. But it’s also about meeting others from different backgrounds, nations and religions, in a way that forces each character to look at him or herself.
Kolirin puts his characters in terribly awkward, uncomfortable circumstances and then plays it straight. The situations he’s created are funny enough, and the pathos his characters feel seems so much more real than if he’d gone for the cheap laughs. And he wisely leaves politics out of it. (Though art doesn’t always imitate life; the film, like all Israeli films, is banned in Egypt.) No, this isn’t Arabs and Israelis learning from one another and doing a “Kumbaya” round robin. Not everyone is thrilled to have an Egyptian policeman crashing in his flat, least of all some of the cops themselves. Instead of warm and fuzzy, The Band’s Visit plays more like Chet Baker’s slow, sad trumpet on “My Funny Valentine,” which Haled uses as his standard pickup line.
Because the film is formulaic, there’s not much you can’t see coming, but watching it arrive is enjoyable nonetheless. Gabai performance as the band’s commander-
in-chief is sweetly subtle – his rigid demeanor serves him well when everything is going according to plan, but it makes him all but unable to deal with the unexpected. The conversation he shares with Dina on their night out is so strained that it’s impossible not to sense what a tragic figure he is. And here’s the thing: Neither his life nor the lives of the rest of the characters is changed in any enormous way by this random, one-day detour. But they are touched.
It may be odd that all of these people – Egyptian policemen, lower-class Israelis – have such a reasonable grasp on English. But it’s part of what makes the film work, the fact that these two divergent cultures that are often at odds have a tattered third party to turn to when they find they’re stuck with each other. What Americans would/should/could find so interesting about The Band’s Visit is just how similar the Arabs and the Israelis are to each other. And, more importantly, to us.