starring Shlomi Avraham, Saleh Bakri, Ronit Elkabetz, Sasson Gabai
written and directed by Eran Kolirin
by Walter Chaw I've been reading a lot of Thomas Friedman lately, mostly because I have glaring, embarrassing gaps in my education and popular, contemporary scholarship about our Middle East imbroglio is chief among them. I've read a good bit on The Crusades and on the wars we've waged during the two Bush administrations; what I haven't read is any extensive insight into the psyche of the Arab Street. Where better to start than through the erudition of a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner? I approached Eran Kolirin's The Band's Visit in a different way, I realize, than I would have prior to my dip into Friedman's headspace--and was gratified, as I seldom have been, by how a juncture in my interests resulted in what could only be a richer film experience. The Band's Visit is already remarkable for its sensitivity and patience, but knowing a little of the tragic intractability of Israeli/Arab relations lends it an implacable weight of sorrow. I'm convinced that there's already a latent melancholy in the picture, but armed with just a gloss of Camp David, the Israeli/Egyptian conflict, suddenly all of the picture's travails--being shut out of the Cairo film festival and, at the last minute, the Abu Dhabi fest as well--take on this terrible weight of irony and hopelessness. Without showing anybody coming over to "the other side," as it were, The Band's Visit is about communication, understanding, and acceptance, its characters united in their difference in the quest for the indefinable sublime. It's the best kind of political film in that it's a work, without pretension, of essential humanity--and the best kind of sentimental film in that it earns its sentiment.
The Egyptian Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, led by proper Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai), gets lost in the Israeli boonies thanks to a bum map, bad directions, and road signs that aren't translated into Arabic. Trapped with his band in a desert backwater for the night, Tewfiq secures food and lodging from bored Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), who takes him out to a local kebob joint to discuss what it means to live a life in the arts in an increasingly artless world. The heart of The Band's Visit is the idea that not only is conflict not the cure to the world's ails, but diplomacy isn't, either. Actions and words stand secondary to the ineffable connection of humans to art, with Kolirin delivering the grace note that it's only in intimate, quiet interactions that our similarities might be sussed out. Dashing beefcake Khaled (Saleh Bakri) acts as intermediary in his boss's night with Dina before acting the Cyrano for hopeless Papi (Shlomi Avraham), set up on a blind date at a local roller rink. The Band's Visit ultimately surmounts fish-out-of water vignettes set up for maximum pap and cutesiness through Kolirin's assured understatement. He makes an awkward dinner resolved with a tentative group sing-along to Cole Porter, or an impromptu trumpet performance of "My Funny Valentine" in a quiet, late-night kitchen, ring with a pleasing unaffectedness. The resolution of Dina and Tewfiq's night on the town, besides, unsheathes the tension lingering underneath the picture's pervasive melancholy. The film is brief moments of pleasure blooming in the middle of desolation and nostalgia; the laughter, I think, comes from a recognition of the shape of our own regrets.
The Band's Visit's is droll and self-deprecating in ways unforced and natural. It feels like Jim Jarmusch's early pictures: travelogues and time capsules populated by types coaxed, slowly and generously, into three-dimensionality. It's the most hopeful of films in its suggestion that the possibility for peaceful coexistence comes somehow from the recognition of a collective unconscious; a poem about the selfishness of love delivered in an alien tongue carries with it still the essential truth of the emotion. I was reminded a little of Plato's creation myth of doubled-personae, split by a jealous Zeus to halve the creature's power derived mainly from its sense of joy. The Band's Visit suggests a magnetism among humans, drawn by their loneliness and pain to the art that best articulates that loneliness and pain, and to the individuals who share with them that ability to recognize what can't be spoken in the gulf between people. I wish I'd seen it in time for my best-of-2007 list. Originally published: February 8, 2008.