Band's Visit, The (Israel/France/United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The quality and quantity of Israeli movie exports have increased significantly in recent years. Most of those features, while well-made, tend to be serious - not surprising considering the volatile situation those living there find themselves in. For that reason, The Band's Visit, the directorial debut of Erin Kolirin, is a welcome surprise. A drama about isolation and communication, The Band's Visit is characterized both by strongly delineated characters and low-key comedy. The movie is not lightweight but it is at times lighthearted.

The film opens with the semi-comedic sight of a group of eight men wearing impeccably tailored sky blue uniforms standing at a bus stop. They are the Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra and they have arrived in Israel after being invited there to play at the opening of the Arab Cultural Center in Pet Hatikvah. Unfortunately, no one has met them and, one wrong bus ride later, they find themselves trapped in the small town of Bet Hatikvah, in the middle of nowhere. There, it doesn't matter that they are Egyptians. The residents are so excited to have something - anything - to break the monotony that they're willing to overlook any cultural divisions.

The story quickly divides into three pieces. The leader of the band, the buttoned-up Tawfiq Zacharaya (Sasson Gabai) spends an evening out with Dina (Ronit Eklabetz), the owner of the town's only restaurant. Despite apparently different personalities, these two find solace in each other's company and discover that the gulf between them may not be that wide after all. A few other members of the band "invade" a local house where the husband invites them without his wife's permission. In addition to escalating tensions in the marriage, it leads to an absurd sing-along. Finally, Khaled (Selah Bakri), the band's rebellious newest member, helps teach a socially awkward Israeli how to woo a girl.

The Band's Visit is about communication and how important it is in facilitating understanding. Sometimes, nonverbal signals make speech unnecessary but, most of the time, the way people grow to know and respect others, is through talk - both small and large. The Egyptians speak Arab and the Israelis speak Hebrew so in order to interact, both sides must use the "compromise" language of English. There are two side-bars to this that go beyond the story. Although The Band's Visit is primarily in English, it is subtitled. Presumably, this is because the filmmakers were concerned that thick accents might impede understanding (although I found the English-subtitled-English to be a distraction). Secondly, the movie - despite being an Israeli production filmed in Israel - was disqualified from contention for the Best Foreign Language Film because of its high percentage of English. As a result of this, two of the past year's most acclaimed foreign films - The Band's Visit and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days - were not mentioned at the Oscar ceremony.

The most moving story, and the one to receive the most screen time, is the semi-romance between Tawfiq and Dina. There's a load of sexual chemistry between these two, but it's forcefully repressed by Tawfiq, who is the kind of man who feel uncomfortable expressing emotions. Nevertheless, he opens up to Dina about painful past secrets and reveals more of himself than he has likely done with anyone else. She is obviously interested in a sexual liaison but does not push the attraction. The actors playing these parts, Sasson Gabai and Ronit Eklabetz, are seasoned veterans with some international exposure. This kind of expert work is deserving of the praise it has received across the globe (especially at film festivals).

In keeping with the "fish out of water" aspect of the movie, Kolirin maintains a predominantly light tone and offers plenty of humorous moments. There are, for example, interludes at a roller disco that are designed to tickle the funny bone. In the end, The Band's Visit is about members of two cultures trying to bridge gaps in circumstances where all too often, spans are being brought down and chasms widened. It's the people, not the politics, that exist at the movie's focal point.

Band's Visit, The (Israel/France/United States, 2007)

Director: Erin Kolirin
Cast: Sasson Gabai, Ronit Elkabetz, Saleh Bakri, Khalifa Natour
Screenplay: Erin Kolirin
Cinematography: Shai Goldman
Music: Habib Shadah
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: 2008-02-08
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Hebrew, Arabic
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1