Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Band's Visit: Thoroughly charming

The Band's Visit (2007) • View trailer for The Band's Visit
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and much too harshly, for fleeing profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.20.08
Buy DVD: The Band's Visit

Ultimately, the universal language of music may be our best chance at salvation.

How short-sighted, then, that when public school budgets hit a crisis — both nationally or locally — the first reflexive response involves cutting all funding for arts and music programs.
Tewfig (Sasson Gabai, far left) and the other seven members of the Alexandria
Ceremonial Police Orchestra find themselves in the middle of nowhere, when a
trip to Israel goes awry due to crossed travel signals. With no idea of what to
do next, and the uncomfortable certainty that language is apt to be rather a
formidable barrier, Tewfig can't imagine how to salvage his band's trip.

Those making such decisions should be strapped to chairs and forced to watch Israeli filmmaker Eran Kolirin's The Band's Visit, a charming little drama with a quiet approach but an oh-so-timely message.

Kolirin's simple little story feels as if it was suggested by actual events, but the filmmaker insists not. That merely adds to the movie's charm; the appearance of authenticity makes the narrative's moral point even stronger.

The setting is contemporary. The eight members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, their pastel blue uniforms starched to crisp perfection, arrive in Israel in order to perform at the opening of an Arab cultural center. Unfortunately, signals have been crossed; the musicians find themselves at the airport with no sign of their Israeli hosts.

Demonstrating once again that real men never ask for help — no matter what part of the world we're talking about — the stoic and almost comically proud orchestra leader and conductor, Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai), refuses to contact the Egyptian consulate. Instead, he orders junior member Khaled (Saleh Bakri) to obtain travel directions from a nearby kiosk.

The young man and the station agent work their way through Arabic, Hebrew and even fractured English, and the results prove disastrous: The orchestra members soon find themselves stranded on the outskirts of a microscopic Israeli town at the edge of the desert.

By now, Kolirin has proven to be a master of the understated sight gag. Although the situation, at first blush, isn't remotely funny — imagine an octet of militarily garbed Arabs suddenly dumped into the middle of an Israeli community, no matter how small — the sight of these eight men, their pale blue uniforms such a stark contrast to the barren desert, can't help making us smile.

And with that emotional release, not to mention the wry tone that punctuates every conversation between these men, we immediately understand that this will be a story of inclusiveness, not tragedy.

Tewfiq takes his job much too seriously, although he has cause; aside from the heavy political consequences of their presence in Israel, budget cuts are threatening his orchestra's very existence. He therefore insists on decorum as they silently trudge into town, their almost regal bearing as out of place as a modern European opera singer would have been 150 years ago, in the wild American West.

They finally land outside a small café run by Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), an earthy, independent woman who couldn't be more unlike her unexpected customers. She can't help being amused, nor can two young fixtures at this Israeli equivalent of the local bar where everybody knows your name: the unemployed Itzik (Rubi Moscovich) and the insecure Papi (Shlomi Avraham).

But Dina isn't unkind; once apprised of the situation, through Tewfiq's halting English, she immediately insists on both feeding and finding shelter for all eight men. Their concert isn't until the following day, and she quite reasonably points out that travel arrangements can be made the following morning.

Besides ... they arrived on the last bus of the day anyway.

Tewfiq isn't quite sure they should accept such kindness from strangers; he's also obviously uncomfortable with Dina's casual dress and easy-going manner. Women aren't like this, in his experience. But his men are hungry and worried, and so he relents.

Kolirin's film confines itself to what takes place during the next 24 hours, as the various folks from these two dissimilar cultures adjust to each other. Encounters are poignant or sadly frustrating; some are unexpectedly droll.

The latter comes courtesy of Khaled, who tags along with Papi for a night on the town. Khaled obviously wants action and a quick score, but he gradually becomes involved with his shy companion's inexperience with women. Papi hasn't the faintest idea how to approach the girl with whom he has been paired off; he's able to communicate that much to his new Egyptian friend.

But of course Khaled's English isn't up to the challenge of conducting a short course on manly behavior.

The solution is both charming and quite funny.

Elsewhere, orchestra second-in-command Simon (Khalifa Natour) and two other men have been billeted with Itzik and his family. This seems a disaster from the onset; Itzik's longtime unemployment has raised tensions so high with his wife that she's incapable of the generosity of spirit so badly needed under such circumstances.

But this situation also moves to a clever resolution, which involves a partial concerto that Simon hasn't found the inspiration to finish.

The film's emotional weight is carried by Dina and Tewfiq: She pretty much forces him to take her out on a date, and then she persistently works at him until a few rays of actual personality break through the cloudbank of his stiff, gentlemanly demeanor. The process is slow but eventually rewarding.

Both Gabai and Elkabetz are persuasive as proud, private and melancholy people. Both have bottled up long-ago heartbreaks and constructed outward masks with which to greet the world: Hers is enforced cheerfulness — and the more time we spend with her, the more we realize that her eyes do not reflect this gaiety — while his is inflexible formality.

Kolirin's approach is slow, methodical and quite understated; it could be argued that very little of consequence takes place in this film. Some will find its economical 87 minutes rather slow, particularly since the filmmaker wisely avoids anything approaching an epiphany or climactic resolution.

This is no more than a brief slice of life: a series of short encounters that could be dismissed as inconsequential ... were it not for the obvious cultural barriers being bent and eventually shattered, if only for 24 hours.

The Israeli-born Kolirin clearly was inspired, in part, by an incongruity from his own early 1980s childhood, when every Friday afternoon was devoted — in his home, and in households all over Israel — to watching Egyptian movies on their one and only TV channel. This odd practice becomes part of Dina's personal "history" in this film, and the image is both sweet and profound: countless Israelis transfixed by the convoluted soap operas emanating from a country with which they frequently were at war.

And sometimes, after the movie, young Kolirin and all the other viewers would hear a performance by the Israeli Broadcasting Authority orchestra, a classical Arab ensemble made up almost entirely of Arab Jews from Egypt and Iraq.

Write what you know, as the saying goes; Kolirin has done better than most, in putting this theory to practice.

The Band's Visit was in the news during the ramp-up to the annual Academy Awards ceremony, because of its failure to be allowed as Israel's entry in the foreign film category. The reason: too much spoken English. I cannot adequately express my contempt for that decision, but the rich irony is obvious, given the film's subject.

This one's a subdued, leisurely experience, but it's well worth your time.

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