If you’re avoiding The Band’s Visit because it’s not in English, stop that foolishness right now. Besides, much of the film’s dialogue is in English (and also subtitled in case the accents are a problem for you). As a result, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—in what may be a crowning achievement of bad judgment—declared it ineligible as Israel’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film.
The Band’s Visit is a film of exquisite charm, beauty, humor and humanity—with some of the best performances you’re likely to encounter in some considerable time. Never heard of Ronit Elkabetz? Neither had I, but she’d have gotten my vote for 2007’s best actress on my Southeastern Film Critics Association ballot if Sony Classics hadn’t instituted a “no screeners” policy and kept me from seeing the film till last Friday. Yes, she really is that good, but more on that later.
Kolirin’s film starts with the words, “Once—not long ago—a small Egyptian police band arrived in Israel. Not many remember this … . It wasn’t that important.” And as an event, this may be true, but if the story he spins from that premise isn’t important, I don’t know what is. Compare The Band’s Visit with this week’s Smart People, and the shallow smart-assery and phony profundity of the latter looks even shabbier than it already did.
The Band’s Visit is a genuine, deeply felt study of the human condition—of the things that divide us, the things that can bridge that divide and the core of loneliness that pervades our existence. It may, in fact, be the single best movie on the topic of loneliness I’ve ever seen—yet it’s a point that is made in a comedic, bittersweet way that slyly avoids descending into breast-beating angst. It also suggests that this loneliness doesn’t have to exist—an idea that is at once hopeful and even more heartbreaking because that loneliness is so rarely or so briefly defeated.
The story is beyond simple. An Egyptian police band slated to perform at the opening of an Arab cultural center in Israel lands at the airport only to find no one there to meet them. The officious leader of the group, Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai), sends womanizing Haled (Saleh Bakri) to get directions to the center. Haled’s English—the common language between the Israelis and the Egyptians—is sketchy, and his penchant for hitting on every pretty girl doesn’t help (“Do you like Chet Baker?” is his stock pickup line). So the members of the band find themselves stranded in the one-eyed town of Bet Hatikvah rather than Petah Tikvah.
The locals are so bored with their own company that the sight of these musicians in their military-looking sky-blue uniforms is a treat—plus, their plight amuses them. “There is no Arab culture center here. No Israeli culture either. No culture of any kind,” restaurateur Dina (Ronit Elkabetz) assures Tewfiq. That’s not quite true. We later find that the town has a shabby roller disco—complete with mirror ball and Israeli covers of bad ‘80s pop songs—but that’s the extent of it. Since there’s no bus till the next day and no hotel, Dina and the two layabouts in her restaurant who seem to be her sole clientele, Simon (Khalifa Natour) and Papi (Shlomi Avraham), take a few band members along with them.
What results from this makes up the bulk of the movie. And those results are frequently little short of magical. The entire depiction of the relationship that never quite can be between Dina and Tewfiq is beautifully rendered, while there’s something sad and yet completely understandable in what she settles for in its place. Haled’s trip to the roller disco with Papi—where Haled instructs the awkward virgin in the art of courtship—is both very funny and sweet without being sticky. The essentially comic Simon turns out to be the one who finally speaks about “tons and tons of loneliness” in the course of the film. Secrets are revealed and walls come down—at least enough for each to get a glimpse of the shared humanity of the other, even if the gaps between them are only tentatively bridged, if at all.
Writer-director Kolirin affects an unfussy style that befits the material and gives his actors the freedom to breathe. It’s the performances that finally make the movie sing. Everyone is good, but Elkabetz is the standout. Just watch her body language in the scene where she bids Tewfiq good-bye. Notice how she starts to embrace him, then stops herself, and finally stands holding her arms behind her in order not to be tempted to cross that line again. She wants to. Tewfiq wants her to. We want her to. But the message of the movie is that we all stand that way to some degree, and that’s the tragedy of all humankind. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.