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This review was originally published March 29th, 2008.
The title card at the beginning of the film reads, “Once – not long ago – a small Egyptian police band arrived in Israel. Not many remember this…It wasn’t that important.” What an understated way to begin such a charming, funny, heartfelt, insightful, bittersweet, and life affirming film, but once you’ve reached the end, you realize that it could not have started any other way.
How to convince you to see this gem of a film? I could tell you that moments smack of Wes Anderson, with numerous center-framed shots designed for comedic effect. Indeed, the lingering image of 10 men in periwinkle blue band uniforms (“Like Michael Jackson,” one of them quips) dragging their clunky instrument cases across the colorless Israeli landscape recalls Anderson’s brilliantly absurd art direction. Or, I could mention that there are episodes of Office-esque humor, where you simultaneously laugh and cringe at the uncomfortable situations the characters find themselves in. Maybe I could play up the As Good As It Gets similarities, since a past-his-prime curmudgeon forms an unlikely bond with a down-on-her-luck beauty in this film as well. But to describe The Band’s Visit as Jack Nicholson-meets-The Office via Wes Anderson would be disingenuous. It’s truly none of those things, and in many ways it surpasses all of them.
Lieutenant-colonel Tawfiq Zacharya (Sasson Gabal) has brought his Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra to Israel to perform at the grand opening of the Arab Culture Center. Back home there have been intimations from the powers-that-be that the budget can no longer sustain a ‘police orchestra,’ so the pressure is on to prove that they are a valuable asset. Leave it to Haled (Saleh Bakri), the youthful playboy of the group, to expend more effort on singing Chet Baker’s “My Funny Valentine” to the ticket girl than in making sure he’d purchased the correct tickets. One grungy bus ride later and the band finds itself in the Israeli equivalent of Deliverance, minus the inbred banjo player. Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), a local restaurant owner, breaks down their predicament in basic terms, when they ask where the Culture Center is: “Here there is no Arab culture,” she says. “Also, no Israeli culture. Here there is no culture at all.” There are also no more buses. They are stuck. Dina and a few other locals generously offer to put the band up for the night.
In terms of plot, nothing else really happens. Israeli director Eran Kolirin’s feature film debut has little to do with typical Hollywood conventions, either comedic or romantic. It is instead about the simple interactions between human beings that speak volumes about love, loss, and loneliness. There are too many beautiful, touching moments to relate all of them: Haled speaking about love in Arabic, Tawfiq showing Dina how to conduct an orchestra, Azim (Imad Jabarin) discovering the finale to his concerto at the cribside of a sleeping infant. The actors, all of them, are so believable it hurts.
Lest you think it’s all serious and moody, however, let me relate that it’s also very, very funny. I was completely charmed and sat through the entire film with a goofy, wonderful smile on my face. Kolirin knows just where to put his camera and he knows just how long to hold his takes for maximum effect. One scene in particular, where Haled instructs a bewildered local in the ways of love by pantomiming how he should comfort his crying date, is perfect in its pacing and timing. The scene is a single take, lasts nearly 3 minutes, and is one of the funniest things I’ve seen at the cinema in a long time.
Perhaps this could be chalked up to my naivety, but I could never have imagined the human experience to be as universal as this film has shown it to be. These Egyptians and Israelis are as similar to me as my fellow countrymen, and it is impossible to avoid relating to them on some level. Is it even more naïve of me to think that films like The Band’s Visit, if they were shown throughout Israel and Palestine, might actually change people’s minds? Might it even change our minds? Kolirin’s film has the power to cross cultural divides in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible.
Let me share one last moment with you. During a particularly uncomfortable dinner, one of the hosts, Avrum (Uri Gavriel), is relating to the band members how he met his wife and fell in love with her. “What love?” she retorts. The scene is played for laughs, but there is an underlying tragedy to the exchange. The small things we do and say, the ways in which we hurt and take for granted our loved ones, build up over time until they become an insurmountable barrier, and we say “What love?” without a hint of irony.
As soon as I got out of the theater I called my wife. We had had a fight the previous night about something small and insignificant (isn’t it always that way?) and I had committed the cardinal marital no-no of going to bed angry. I apologized and told her I loved her, not wanting to let the small things build up. She asked if I had called because of the movie, and I told her I had.
That, I think, is the greatest compliment I could give The Band’s Visit. Avoid the usual dreck floating in the muddy puddle of the multiplex, and go see this film.