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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)

16 Responses to “Review: The Band’s Visit (2008) ****”

  1. “…like a Jim Jarmusch film…”

    I’m sold.

    I’ll be seeing this very soon but this really made me excited. Thanks for the review, Craig (though I must confess I haven’t read it yet–ditto, In Bruges… I’ll be back to these threads, though, after I’ve seen the films).

  2. It’s dangerous to throw out references like that…this is not a Jim Jarmusch film, but it has a certain placid, droll quality to it that is similar.

    You’re wise not to read reviews before seeing a movie. I don’t either.

  3. I’m sure it’s quite different from being downright Jarmuschian but a reference like that is nevertheless music to my eyes. (See, I’m reading it, not hearing it, yuck, yuck…)

    All the smart kids avoid reviews before seeing the films, Craig. Rottentomatoes and Metacritic numbers coupled with a few noted critics and reviewers, including yourself, and what people in general are saying, are enough for me to go in with.

  4. Ah, now I know I’ve postponed writing my english-language review too long….because I really have nothing to add. You’ve captured the movie perfectly, though I’m probably just a tiny bit more enthusiastic about it than you are.

    But hey, all readers? Go see it. It’s a great, unassuming movie that works because of the quiet character moments. And those baby blue suits make for beautiful, AND funny, images.

  5. that picture is begging to be captioned… ;)

    alexander,you live in an area where people are talking about the band’s visit ????

    hmm i like reading reviews before i see a film. it’s usually the number one that get’s my interest. ala i had ‘visit’ in my mental ‘neither’ category but how craig described tewfiq and dina. i’m sort of curious. :)

    oh and alexander, about in bruges…the butler did it. ;)

  6. ..and craig you don’t have to read reviews first because you see everything…..

    but for me it’s reveiws and being curious about what’s wowing the kids at a.d. or l.i.c. that determines what gets seen. :)

  7. It’s not an easy movie to review Hedwig, in any language…not for me anyway. I don’t want to say it’s slight because that sounds like a criticism, but it is what it is and it doesn’t require a lot of analysis. It’s just a lovely film.

  8. I can’t read reviews Gilm because I’m afraid my own would be tainted, but I’m glad you come and read mine and that you’re wise enough to take them with a grain of salt.

  9. It’s not necessary for every foreign film to be weighty – humor is probably a better tool to bring the peoples of the world together than anything else. I’ll move this to my must-see list (instead of my maybe-see list where it’s been).

  10. I have to second Alexander, you had me at “Jim Jarmusch.”

  11. And I have to second Alexander regarding RT, Metacritic, and some brief temperature taking as being the limit to my pre-viewing practices. Both for “tainting” reasons as you mention Craig, and for general freshness. That being said, I’ll throw it all out the window and say that I’ll probably make The Band’s Visit having seen its rating here. Oh well, at least it’s from a trusted source.

  12. Go, but go cautiously. It’s not a movie that’s going to stand up to a lot of weighty expectations. It was refreshingly light in a way that American movies never seem to manage.

  13. I have to agree with Craig on this. My experience with The Band’s Visit was probably so great partly because I knew absolutely nothing about it going in, and didn’t expect anything from it except the 15 euro from writing a review of it.

  14. Expectations are a bitch.

  15. Craig, as always superlative work here on a film I also plan to see before the week is out.

  16. Thanks Sam!

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