February 7, 2008

The Band's Visit

Newcomer Kolirin presents an unstriking Israeli-Egyptian story with a strikingly tender eye

By Michelle Orange

Poignant in a way that pokes and prods -- a little uncertain of itself -- until it pierces through, The Band's Visit is a truly lovely film, as patient and generous with its characters as viewers should be with its delicately latent politics and occasional over-love of eccentric tableaux. Writer/director Eran Kolirin presents the unstriking events of an Egyptian police band's single evening spent in a dead-end Israeli village with a strikingly tender, human eye that belies his status as a novice.

Juno MacGuff’s step-mom might have deemed Bet Hatikva "East Moses Nowhere," but the desert enclave is nevertheless where the Egyptian Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arrive to give a performance in honor of the opening of an Arab Cultural Center. Dropped off in front of a small restaurant with a permanent, two-man clientele seated out front, the conductor Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai) is soon informed by the proprietress, Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), that there is no such culture center in Bet Hatikva -- no culture at all, in fact -- and in a clumsy interface of Arabic and Hebrew, they determine that the band is actually due in another town -- Petah Tikva.

It is the second in a series of humiliations for Tewfiq and his men, the first being their standard issue, blazing light blue uniforms. Tensions fritz forth both between the elder conductor and the young hot shot Khaled (Saleh Bakri), while the unassuming, second-string conductor Simon (Khalifa Natour) tries to work up the nerve to demand a shot at the helm. The next bus is in the morning, and Dina, a self-possessed divorcée with a throaty voice and a swingy rear, offers the band members both her own home and those of her best customers, the petrified virgin Papi (Shlomi Avraham) and struggling new father Itzik (Rubi Moscovich). Kolirin moves in between the scenes of détente, assessment, miscommunication, longing and tentative connection that occur within each group, with a particular focus on Dina and Tewfiq, whom the dauntless woman recognizes as a fellow walking wounded.

I guess it takes one to know one, because what Tewfiq's men see is a stubborn old man clinging to what little authority he has over his baby-blue fiefdom. Exchanging looks of approbation and appreciation over Dina's bared ankle and painted toenails, Tewfiq and Khaled share a fraught, father-son dynamic that comes clear, as most of the characters' disappointments do, over a long night of halting, rejuvenating interaction. Speaking mostly in (subtitled) English, the tongue that the Egyptians and Israelis can both manage best, language itself becomes a signifier of the terrifying struggle to connect. Simon, having played the introduction to a concerto he has been trying to finish for 30 years, is advised by Itzik, essentially and necessarily in the plainest terms possible, to lower his expectations: "Maybe this is your ending," he says, gesturing around his infant son’s room. "Not sad, not happy, just a small room, a lamp, a bed, a child sleeps and… tons of loneliness. That’s how it ends."

Music and film are firmer common ground: the bedroom-eyed Khaled can make an Israeli woman stop dead in her tracks by singing "My Funny Valentine" just low enough for her to hear. A round of "Summertime" can (sort of) ease tensions at a prickly dinner table, and a tough broad will soften for an upright old General because he reminds her of the Egyptian movies that filled the Friday afternoons of her girlhood. Kolirin loves arranging his lonely characters for maximum symbolic impact as they court these rare moments of respite; figures sit together, turn away, stand apart and side-by-side, and that's about as close as we come -- or need to, for that matter -- to the infinitely more complicated, densely peopled landscape of Israeli-Egyptian history. Although some of these shots feel a little too killing in their cuteness, there is nothing convoluted in the faces they frame or the sublime melancholy of their eventual farewell: not sad, not happy. That’s how it ends.

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