The Band’s Visit (12a)

Sep 10, 2008
Cranbrook Film Society

Eran Kolirin’s first feature film may be set in modern-day Israel, but its tone of ironic understatement is so dry, you half expect Alec Guinness to walk into “The Band’s Visit” at any moment.

Much of that has to do with Kolirin’s unhurried, carefully crafted script, and a plotline that seems to have come from Ealing Studios. An Egyptian police band, decked out in blinding light blue uniforms, arrives in Israel for a concert to mark the opening of an Arab cultural institute. Instead of going to the town where the ceremony is to be held, the group winds up in a dead-end place with a similar name and not much happening. When the band’s leader, Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai) asks the owner of a small cafe if she knows where the dedication ceremony might be, she answers that there is no Arab cultural institute in town or even, for that matter, an Israeli cultural institute. In fact, there’s no culture of any kind, she deadpans.

The cafe owner is an attractive woman named Dina (Ronit Elkabetz) who takes pity on the lost Egyptians. Since there are no more buses that day, two of them will stay overnight with her, the others will stay with patrons of her cafe.

This is very much a character-driven story, so much so that, at first, there seems to be very little story at all. But Kolirin skillfully holds our attention by focusing on the rather unfulfilled lives of Tewfiq, Dina, two patrons of the cafe and a few of the band members, including handsome young lothario Haled (Saleh Bakri). While they come from different cultures, all share a kind of resignation about their lives and prospects.

Tewfiq, as the band leader, wants to maintain decorum at all points. He looks like, and is, a martinet, impatient with the slightest deviation from form. And yet, when he reveals his back story, we see how his cold exterior hides, so well, a broken heart. Dina, a woman who’s seen it all and seems to have no curiosity about the future, nonetheless is the first to befriend the wandering Egyptians. For a moment, we feel her drawn toward Tewfiq, but not necessarily out of love, but rather, as two broken people hoping to be whole again.

Haled, the youngest member of the band, thinks of himself as a ladies’ man and that any woman would want him. At every turn, he shows the rough edges and impatience of youth. His attempts at pickup lines are comical in kind of an Egyptian version of “two wild and crazy guys.” And then, in a seemingly insignificant but eloquently telling moment in the film, he coaches a young Israeli man in how to approach a woman for the first time.

While this is a film about Egyptians wandering around the Israeli sticks, it is not overtly political at all. Whatever happens between Cairo and Jerusalem happens, as far as these people are concerned. They’re just trying to get on with their lives and perhaps find a little meaning as well. By the end of the short but perfectly pitched gem, we understand that its apparently observational distance has not only given us precious insight into the lives of ordinary Israelis and Egyptians, but, tacitly, a sense of political possibility as well.

This lovely, smart and beautifully understated film is at the centre of the 2008 annual debate over how confused the rules are for best foreign film at the Oscars. The Band’s Visit was rejected for consideration in that category because it has too much English in it. Of course, the only reason the Egyptians and the Israelis speak English from time to time is because it’s the only language they have in common. Logic, as usual, not only doesn’t translate for the Academy, but also keeps an extraordinarily worthy film from justifiably competing for what is otherwise a frequently devalued award.

This delightful Middle Eastern film has won 36 awards worldwide – while at the same time being banned from film festivals in Cairo and Abu Dhabi!!

Eran Kolirin | Israel | 2007 | 87 minutes | 12a