Ronit Elkabetz and Sasson Gabai warm up to each other in The Band’s Visit
Israel’s The Band’s Visit opens quietly, like a Jim Jarmusch film. In it, eight Egyptian men who comprise the Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra find themselves standing in the hot sun, lined up outside the airport in Tel Aviv, looking uncomfortable in their light-blue uniforms. They’ve come to Israel from Egypt and they’re waiting for a van to take them to the nearby town of Petah Tikva where they are to perform at the opening of an Arab cultural center. They wait and they wait, but their transportation never arrives.
Taking matters into his own hands, their stubborn, dignified leader, Tewfiq, tasks the youngest band member, Khaled, to get them bus tickets. Unfortunately, the young trumpet player is the dreamy, amorous sort and he’s more interested in flirting with the young woman at the ticket counter (“Do you like Chet Baker?”) than he is with the finer points of Israeli place names. So it is that, instead of Petah Tikva, the orchestra ultimately finds itself in Bet Hatikva, a small town out in the desert. Here a pretty café owner named Dina informs them there is “no Arab culture, no Israeli culture. No culture at all.” Worse, the bus back to civilization won’t arrive until the next morning and the town has no hotel.
With little Israeli currency, the men are stranded, but Dina sseems to take a quick liking to Tewfiq. She jokingly refers to him as “The General” because of his military bearing. Perhaps looking to add a little excitement to a dull existence, she agrees to help the men find places to stay. What follows is a familiar comic fish-out-of-water tale, though one that’s magnified by the political and cultural tensions between Arabs and Israelis. While the final outcome is never really in doubt, the interest lies more in the little moments along the way as these neighbor-strangers warily reveal themselves to one another.
Though it may lack in originality, The Band’s Visit makes up for it in a couple of ways. First are the two leads, Sasson Gabai as the taciturn Tewfiq and Ronit Elkabetz as sexy Dina. Underneath The General’s stern and businesslike exterior (he’s even uncomfortable removing his hat), Gabai injects a note of melancholy and regret that only begins to reveal itself as the evening wears on. Elkabetz isn’t supermodel attractive, but she’s beautiful. She’s got a smoky voice and an appealing earthy sexiness. Dina seems weary and bored, but she seizes on this unexpected diversion hoping it might shake her out of her ennui. Elkabetz plays her just right.
The film’s other secret weapon is its very foreignness. An American film would’ve been trumped up with plot complications and twists and heightened drama. It would’ve been in a hurry to get somewhere, but The Band’s Visit keeps things simple. It’s content to wander and explore, waiting patiently as the characters open up to one another, learning about each other and themselves in the process. Through music and through basic human decency, they reach out in small ways across cultural lines to bond as human beings, if only for an evening.
Content to be a slice of life at a moment in time, the film follows its own rhythms and its own music, charming you stealthily rather than straining itself to make a point. With its simple pleasures and likeable cast, The Band’s Visit is a perfect cinematic amuse bouche, preparing your appetite during a slow time in the movie release schedule.
The Band’s Visit. USA/Israel/France 2007 (released 2008). Written and directed by Eran Kolirin. Cinematography by Shai Goldman and Arik Lahav-Leibovitz. Music composed by Habib Shehadeh Hanna. Starring Sasson Gabai, Ronit Elkabetz and Saleh Bakri. In English, Arabic and Hewbrew w/subtitles. 1 hour 26 minutes. MPAA Rated PG-13 for brief strong language. 4 stars (out of 5)
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