Three and a half stars (PG-13)
The Band’s Visit is about a very proper Egyptian band that gets stuck far from home. The low-key film is funny and melancholy and occasionally even sweet. I enjoyed it, but wondered aloud after the screening if it was too little for a commercial run on the big screen. Such a small movie seemed more appropriate for a film festival, or for the Independent Film Channel. With its brief running time (about an hour and 25 minutes) and subtle nature, I wondered if paying audiences would feel like they got their money’s worth from the movie.
But in the two and a half weeks since I saw The Band’s Visit, the film has stuck with me. I remember various scenes vividly. More important, I remember the characters — their expressions, their moments of discomfort and vulnerability. I remember the physicality of the two most prominent cast members. They seemed so real that I could almost feel the heat from their breath. It took a while, but I came to realize that this small film is anything but slight.
The first feature from writer and director Eran Kolirin follows the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Band as they arrive in Israel to perform in a small town. Alas, there is no one waiting to pick up the Egyptian band, so they arrange the transportation themselves. But there is a verbal miscommunication and the band ends up in the wrong small town, forced to rely on the kindness of strangers until their situation can be sorted out.
Language is a problem. The band speaks little Hebrew and the townies speak little Arabic, so most of the communication is in English. (The subtitled film was shut out of contention for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards because it was determined that too much English was used.) Sitting in the only cafe in town, the reserved, middle-age band conductor Tawfiq (Sasson Gabai) reluctantly agrees when casually sexy cafe manager Dina (Ronit Elkabetz) suggests they sleep over and address their situation in the morning.
Tawfiq and young stud Khaled (Saleh Bakri) stay at Dina’s, while second-in-command Simon (Khalifa Natour) and the other band members bunk with laid-back Itzik (Rubi Moscovich) and his family, where there are grumblings over guests being invited without the approval of the rest of the household.
You might expect the Middle East political conflict to play heavily in the film, but it doesn’t. Not because Kolirin is avoiding the subject, but because the characters have other matters on their minds. The displaced band is tired and feeling lousy about being forgotten. They just want their awkward situation resolved. As for the locals, most of them are simply glad to have company.
The comedy and drama in The Band’s Visit is naturalistic. The simmering anger within Itzik’s family is dealt with expertly, with some solid laughs emerging from the volatile situation. Khaled finds himself mentoring insecure young Papi (Shlomi Avraham) at what must be the most pathetic roller disco in the world, and widower Tawfiq’s alone time with Dina takes some surprising turns.
The Band’s Visit could have gone wrong in so many places, but Eran Kolirin’s film stays true to its characters, so the comedy, the drama and the tender moments feel legitimate. This short, small film is a winner.