THE BAND’S VISIT (Bikur Hatizmoreth) A-
Israel France USA (85 mi) 2007 d: Eran Kolirin
A small but delightful film so calculatingly understated that it’s nearly in the deadpan Kaurismäki mode, opening with a brief narration claiming the film is based on a true story seen in a newspaper not so long ago, but hardly memorable at all, claiming “It wasn't that important.” Using miscommunication as a central theme, the film establishes a beautiful sense of the awkwardness of human insecurity, much of which has little to do with politics or culture shock, but with humans caught up in the loneliness of their own situation in life. Bridging the gap between differing cultures, Israeli and Egyptian, forced to use all Israeli actors as Egyptians are not allowed to work in the Israeli film industry, the film takes place in a desert wasteland region, actually shot on location in Yeruham on the Negev Desert in Israel, where a band of powder blue-suited Egyptian policemen in full dress uniform from the touring Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra discover no one meeting them at the airport, so they take a bus that leaves them hopelessly lost in the wrong town of Bet Hatikva as opposed to Petah Tikva, a regrettable pronunciation error, a town that not only has no Arab Cultural center expecting them to play, but no cultural activity of any kind, pretty much nothing, including no other bus headed out of town until the next day, leaving them stranded overnight. The first-time writer/filmmaker does an excellent job with his locale, using establishing shots of a barren and isolated city, developing his own characters, taking his time, allowing events to unfold naturally where over time we slowly learn to appreciate the difficulties of his principal characters, throwing in occasional sight gags as exclamation points to the absurdity of their crisis.
Sasson Gabai is Tewfiq, a man with a face the camera loves to linger on, the proud leader of the group who is forced to deal with the embarrassment of having to rely upon the kindness of strangers, in this case the Israeli owner of a tiny outdoor café, Dina, the earthy, sensuously forward Ronit Elkabetz from LATE MARRIAGE (2001), who not only feeds them but offers them accommodations as well, rounding up space in a friend’s apartment as well as her own. Always in their uniforms, most unable to communicate, the eight Egyptian men remain the picture of dignified reserve. The common language becomes clumsy attempts at broken English, though the film effortlessly changes into Arabic and Hebrew at various points, even breaking out into song, all of which couldn’t be more natural. Initially calling him General, Dina decides to take Tewfiq out to dinner at the only restaurant in town, slowly opening up to him, which offers brief windows into each of their scarred lives, but he politely and graciously resists her open invitations, while at the other household band members sit around a birthday dinner for the wife of the host, who is somewhat aghast at the sudden unexpected turn of events, yet when one of the band members sees a celebratory war photo of an Israeli tank on the wall, he kindly hangs his cap in front of it. Eventually the common denominator at the table is the men breaking into a quiet, barely audible rendition of Gershwin’s “Summertime” as the birthday girl exits into the kitchen doing a slow burn. War and politics are never mentioned, but they are always simmering just below the surface.
Criss-crossing between events, what transpires is a comedy of errors happening right alongside some of the more poignant, tender moments of the year, both in perfect balance, providing just the right touch of authenticity to the otherwise awkwardly improbable situations. The music by Habib Shadah is equally understated and beautifully underscores the tender interior moods, especially Tewfiq and Dina who develop a surprising affection that remains at a professional distance, The Band's Visit - YouTube (4:48), but due to their extraordinary performances is nonetheless the heart and soul of the film. Elkabetz’s range of character and sheer physicality is impressive, as her appeal veers from youthful audacity to elegant classiness. Of interest is Khaled (Saleh Bakri), perhaps a mirror version of Tewfiq as a more flirtatious young man, something of a heart throb with the ladies who enjoys playing trumpet on the side, but he’s a thorn in the side of Tewfiq’s authority, sometimes pressing his last nerve. However, Khaled provides some of the film’s funniest moments, such as his unabashedly shameless pick up techniques or his hilarious scene at a roller rink where in Cyrano de Bergerac mime he wordlessly shows a hesitant young Israeli man step by step how to pick up a girl The Band's Visit - Roller Skating Scene - YouTube (4:01), but he also provides one of the most heartfelt moments in the film explaining what love is in his own language or playing “My Funny Valentine” on the trumpet. By the finale, after Shai Goldman’s camera skillfully isolates the sorrowful expression on each of the main character’s faces sitting in a kitchen the night before, the actual music performance itself, though thoroughly enjoyable, feels like an afterthought, overshadowed by a few small moments of grace that loom forever dancing on a distant edge of our imaginations.