Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Archive: 'The Band's Visit'

Movie Review
The Band's Visit (2008)

A band from Egypt, the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, arrives in a deserted Israeli town because they just got done taking the wrong bus to the wrong destination. This is the premise of "The Band's Visit," another worthy foreign language film, along with "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days," that got ignored by the Academy this past year. It was disqualified for having too much spoken English. But the English spoken here is broken English. The solemn and proper leader of the band picks out his words carefully. The woman he and his band meet in the town is more fluent and amused. They get along even if for years their cultural histories have told them to be wary of each other.

The band leader, Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai), explains his dilemma to the woman, Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), who stands in front of her small cafe and two other bored-looking men sitting in chairs. He explains to her that his band is to play a concert tomorrow at the opening of a new Arab Cultural Center. It turns out that the city they've arrived in has not the correct name but a very similar one. The town is small, dingy, and quiet. And as Dina puts it, there is "no Arab culture, no Israeli culture, no culture at all." After some bitter negotiating amongst the band members, Tewfiq decides to let them all stay the night in this town. Dina serves the band members some food and offers to let Tewfiq and the troublemaker of the band, Haled (Saleh Bakri), stay with her. The other members are sent to go home to the families of the two men fastened to their chairs.

It's here that the movie branches off into three distinct interactions amongst people full of humor, revelation, and tenderness. Haled goes out for a night at a roller rink where he shows a lonesome guy how to get with a girl. Another band member persistently calls the Embassy from a pay phone to try to get the band out of the town quicker; meanwhile a man waiting there gets impatient because he's expecting a call from the woman he loves. At a family birthday party, one of the uninvited band members plays his clarinet for the awkwardly silent group. It's his concerto that he wrote but never finished. Most important of all the events of the evening, though, is how Tewfiq and Dina spend their time.

In small but meaningful scenes, it's just amazing what Ronit Elkabetz and Sasson Gabai bring to their characters. There's a notable connection between the two of them, but there is never any movement. Dina is tough but vulnerable, and she has a defined sense of confidence and independence. Tewfiq hides behind his perfectly pressed blue uniform. There's something pressing down on him, and slowly throughout the evening, we discover just what it is. The relationship here actually reminded me of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in "Lost in Translation"; nothing of their meeting will affect their future lives but it makes very well for a moment to remember.

As much as "The Band's Visit" is a light-hearted and welcoming comedy, there's an unexpected level of poignancy that will sneak up on you. The movie has a clear message about the potential for different cultures to get along primarily because deep down we're all just people. But in the way the movie simply gets this message across, that's where it really shines and surprises. Debut writer-director Eran Kolirin has created a marvelous gem, showing us fine moments of communication between two supposed enemies, the Arabs and the Israelis, and shows them as normal people with hopes, aspirations, and disappointments, just like anybody else. It's a smart and gorgeously understated film, and it will rekindle your hope in the thought that people have the ability to simply be kind to one another.

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