To fully appreciate the deeply warm and optimistic nature of “The Band’s Visit,” you might have to be personally connected to the conflict between Israel and Egypt. Watching the film as an outsider, I’m definitely moved — but I can tell that for the characters in the story (and by extension the everyday Israelis and Egyptians they represent), it means even more.
On the surface, it’s a light and simple fish-out-of-water comedy. An Egyptian police band has flown to Israel to perform at the opening of a new Arab cultural center. Led by the no-nonsense Lt. Col. Tawfiq Zacharya (Sasson Gabai), the band members, in their crisp, powder-blue suits and expressions of nervous confusion, wind up in the wrong tiny town, with no buses heading back to civilization until the next day.
They stop at a small cafe, seemingly the only business in this tiny place, run by Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), a beautiful extrovert with a throaty voice and an open smile. She is more than happy to let the eight musicians stay with her and her friends for the night (her friends are somewhat more reluctant). Tawfiq is apprehensive at first, not wishing to impose, and perhaps not wanting to admit vulnerability to these strangers. But eventually they go home with the kind foreigners and experience an evening of small-town Israeli hospitality.
What follows is a pleasant collection of low-key adventures. Tawfiq, an austere man but not an ogre, lets his defenses down as he spends time with Dina, his casual and friendly hostess. Dina’s other houseguest, Haled (Saleh Bakri), a ladies’ man and troublemaker (that’s why Tawfiq insisted he stay nearby), spends the evening on the town with Papi (Shlomi Avraham), a local guy who needs some tips on how to score with the ladies. Other band members stay with the unemployed Itzik (Rubi Moskovitz) and his family.
Writer/director Eran Kolirin, who has mainly worked in Israeli television, finds plenty of sublime humor in the band’s out-of-placeness, but avoids getting too cute or formulaic. The film’s greatest treasures are in the most surprising places: Dina and Tawfiq finding common ground in one scene, the band’s clarinetist playing the charming tune he composed in another.
We learn, not surprisingly, that two languages are universal: music and love. The Israelis don’t speak much Arabic and the Egyptians don’t speak much Hebrew, but they all know enough English to get by. (That’s why the film was ineligible for Oscar’s foreign-language category: too much English.) They communicate well enough to express their basic humanity, enough to learn the timeless lesson that we’re all brothers and sisters on this big crazy planet of ours.
The film’s sweetness, simplicity, and sincerity are hard to overstate, and probably impossible not to like. The programmers at the Cairo Film Festival refused to show the film solely because it was an Israeli product, and I have to assume they didn’t even bother to watch it. If they had, surely they’d see the irony in being so closed-minded about it — and more to the point, surely they’d have been charmed by its abundant humor and inarguable message.
A- (1 hr., 27 min.; Hebrew and Arabic with subtitles; )