I’ve got a Middle East peace plan for you: Buy everybody in the region a ticket to writer-director Eran Kolirin’s feature debut.
“The Band’s Visit” is a story about people who have ancient differences discovering to their surprise they are more alike than they’ve been conditioned to believe. The opening shot establishes the fish out of water theme with striking visual simplicity. Eight dark-skinned men in powder blue uniforms stand in formation on an empty bus station platform. They are Egyptians awaiting a welcoming committee which will not arrive. At another time, in another place, this would barely rise to the level of minor snafu. As they are Arabs stranded in the Israeli desert, it is cause for major concern.
They are the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra and they’ve come to perform at the opening of a new Arab Cultural Center in the city of Petah Tikva. When no one comes to meet them, their leader, Lieutenant Colonel Tewfiq Zakaria (Sasson Gabai), dispatches a young violinist named Haled (Saleh Bakri) to buy them tickets to that town because his English is better than anyone else’s. It’s not quite good enough, though. In the course of trying to pick up the clerk with a line about Chet Baker, he winds up with tickets to Betah Tikva, a dust-blown hole in the wall that resembles their true destination in name alone.
It is a town in the most technical sense of the word only. There are nondescript concrete apartment buildings, a concrete park, a single public phone and a cafe. Among the many things it doesn’t have is culture. “Here there is no Arab culture,” the cafe’s exotic owner Dina (Ronit Elkabetz) informs the band. “Also, no Israeli culture. Here there is no culture at all.”
When she explains that the next bus won’t come through until the following day, Tewfiq’s first impulse is to march his men through the desert dragging their bulbous instrument cases behind them. Haled, however, soon points out that they haven’t had anything to eat since morning and, the next thing you know, they’re back at the cafe warily insinuating themselves among the terminally bored regulars.
Kolirin deftly avoids the pitfalls inherent in such a situation. Lifelong bonds aren’t forged. No one falls in love. The ability of these people to negotiate a cultural ceasefire for one night in the middle of nowhere isn’t served up as a life affirming lesson. What unfolds between dinner time and dawn instead is simply a series of small moments that possess an understated humor while touching upon the universal.
Dina offers the eight a place to stay. Two come home with her, the others taken in by a pair of cafe mainstays. The band’s clarinet player accompanies a slacker who introduces him to his wife and family. He is not welcomed with open arms. The musician performs a delicate concerto he never got around to finishing due to the distractions of raising a family whereupon a bandmate refers to him under his breath as Schubert.
Following a spat between the husband and wife, the two men admire the fellow’s infant daughter as she slumbers in her crib. Just when you expect him to hold forth on the glories of fatherhood, he offers mournfully, “Maybe this is how your concerto ends…just a small room with a lamp, a bed, child sleeps and tons of loneliness.” Kolirin’s subject isn’t just common humanity but the failures, disappointments and compromises human beings everywhere have in common.
There is no shortage of remarkable moments. One of the most powerful involves a visit to an antiquated roller disco and Haled’s intercession when his awkward host needs help connecting emotionally with his date. The primary focus, though, is on the interplay between the prim and dour Tewfiq and Dina, a playful beauty approaching middle age who develops tender feelings for the older man. They reveal much to one another and appear on the path to sharing something more. But again, the filmmaker throws the sort of curve that life tends to and the outcome feels all the truer for it.
The irony of this story, of course, is that its message of hope has fallen on such deaf ears in certain circles. Audiences around the world have embraced it. It’s won countless awards. The Academy declared it ineligible to compete for this year’s Foreign Language Oscar nonetheless because the dialogue contains halting English along with Arabic and Hebrew. Even crazier, the movie’s been banned by film festivals from Cairo to Abu Dhabi.
For the time being, it would appear, the momentarily harmonious microcosm Kolirin evokes remains a nice place to visit. Unfortunately, no one real is likely to live there anytime soon.