An Egyptian police band wanders the Israeli desert in search of an Arab cultural center. Sounds like a great setup for a lousy Mel Brooks movie. Thankfully, The Band’s Visit is something else.
“Not many remember this,” a title card announces by way of introduction. “It wasn’t that important.” What is important, in Israeli writer-director Eran Kolirin’s feature-film debut, is the strategic value of diffidence. For a first-timer, Kolirin has more surety than he lets on. His background’s in TV, and the tale he tells here is conspicuously a small one, but he seems fully at home within big-screen proportions.
Kolirin knows essential nuts and bolts, like how to set up a shot and how long to hold it. And he has a handle on the intuitive, hard-to-teach stuff, too, like how to make allegory from international relations and comedy from longing and loneliness. Most important, he knows how much feeling a feel-good film can handle before it tips over.
This one comes close. Upon arrival in Israel, the eight members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra find themselves without a welcoming committee. For a few uncertain moments, they stand around stiffly in their too-pretty, robin’s-egg-blue uniforms—regimented dignity doing quiet battle with chance humiliation. Then Lt. Col. Tewfiq Zacharya (Sasson Gabai), the band’s leader, makes some executive decisions. They venture a bus ride and wind up in an obviously wrong city: a desert outpost whose landscape itself seems to blanch at the sight of them. It’s the opposite of an oasis, where streetlamps rise like old bones from the pavement and, quite clearly, there is no cultural center.
“No Arab culture, no Israeli culture, no culture at all,” says Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), the cafe manager who finally greets the accidental minstrels. On the other hand, no culture apparently means no cultural conflict. There’s only a single fleeting and wryly dispatched direct reference to the history of violent strife between Egypt and Israel in this movie, and although they may regard the musicians quizzically, the two or three townspeople hanging around the cafe seem much too bored to be hostile.
Yes, aridity is also the manner of humor here. And we get the idea that all this barrenness has made the bewitching, raspy-voiced Dina eager for anything that could pass for a bloom. So she offers to take the band in for the night.
Even the stubbornly decorous Tewfiq, so straight-backed and rigid that she labels him “general,” knows that only a fool would say no to this woman’s hospitality. Elkabetz is amazing to watch, and her earthy, easygoing sensuality gives the movie its pulse. Gabai’s gallant response gives it motion. When she asks why police should even need an orchestra, he snaps back that it’s like asking “why a man needs a soul.” Dina accordingly lets her guard down as well, confessing, among other things, that she grew up pining for Omar Sharif. Here’s how nowhereness has its privileges: Movie distribution being what it is, her town likely won’t ever be exposed to Sharif’s risible narration in 10,000 B.C.
Kolirin does make time for other characters. We learn that Tewfiq’s sheepish deputy Simon (Khalifa Natour) has been composing a clarinet concerto for years, but hasn’t gotten past the first couple of bars. We witness his rangy young trumpeter, Khaled (Saleh Bakri), an aficionado of Chet Baker and a natural-born lothario, playing Cyrano at a local disco. Not all of the men get so much characterization—there’s a general sense of each being more meek and sleepy-eyed than the last—but collectively, they excel at exaggeratedly long deadpan reaction shots à la Napoleon Dynamite. In this context, the portent silence and space, every blank stare becomes a yearning gaze. Kolirin leaves us to imagine that the criminals back in Alexandria must have a field day there: These must be the gentlest, most sensitive cops in the world.
The Band’s Visit is the movie that was disqualified from Oscar consideration for Best Foreign Language Film because more than half of its dialogue is in English. That’s broken English, mind you, and only as a last resort when the characters realize they’re not getting anywhere in Hebrew and Arabic. You’d think the Academy would be flattered by a movie proposing Anglospeak as the default lingua franca of peace and understanding. But maybe this one was just too soft-spoken for already deaf ears.