The Band’s Visit (review)

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A Universal Language

So you hear that this is a movie about a band from Egypt — where the people are primarily Arab — that takes a trip to do a concert in Israel — where the people are, you know, mostly Jewish — and maybe your first reaction is to groan and moan and avoid avoid avoid because who wants to see a political movie about Arabs and Jews and the mess that is the Middle East and why can’t everyone just get along anyway?
But The Band’s Visit isn’t a political movie. Couldn’t be further from “political.” If you were an alien just landed from another solar system and had no idea about planet Earth and which peoples seem to have institutionalized and knee-jerk hatred of other peoples and just wanted to check out this Movies thing that is so popular among the natives, then the alien-you would find simply a movie about loneliness and sadness and loss and missed opportunities that maybe might give you an idea about who humans are and how we screw ourselves up and how we maybe sometimes fix ourselves. You wouldn’t know from Arab or Jew or hatred or war or anything negative and nasty like that.

Humans are humans, though, and we’re all from Earth, and so of course The Band’s Visit was banned by film festivals in both Cairo and Abu Dhabi because of how shocking it is to suggest that Arabs and Jews might not want to kill one another on first sight. Some humans have brought politics to this flick, but they had to bring it: it’s not there. Except in how radical it is to, you know, suggest that we’re all people and if you prick us, do we not bleed, etc.

It’s beautiful and gentle and warm and a little silly, but in the best possible way, this theatrical feature debut from Israeli writer-director Eran Kolirin about the Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra and, mostly, their conductor and leader, Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai, a major star in Israel). We meet him and his motley players at the airport in Israel, where they are scheduled to perform at the opening of an Arab cultural center — yeah, sure, of course there are Arabs actually living in Israel — and we’re the only ones there to meet them. Their escort never shows up, and the motif of abandonment and isolation that runs through the film starts right here, in the mock-serious yet also totally striking and poignant tone that Kolirin creates as the guys in their full regalia stand around, pathetically perking up when someone carrying flowers and looking like a little welcoming committee shows up, and then jointly deflating as they are passed by. You want to laugh and cry at the same time, and their hopefulness and optimism instantly humanizes them and sucks in our sympathy. Tewfiq is so intent on them all behaving properly and ceremonially, and every reason for their doing so keeps slipping away from them.

They get on a bus that will take them to where they need to be. They get on the wrong bus, of course, and now things are worse, and here they are pitifully dragging their rolling luggage through the desert toward the small town the bus drops them near. It’s funny and it’s miserable, and it keeps getting more of both as they wait out the afternoon in the cafe run by Dina (Ronit Elkabetz, another big Israeli name), who eventually feels badly enough for them — particularly after informing them that no, there are no more buses today — that she figures out how to distribute the dozen or so band members around the homes of herself and her friends so that everyone has a place to stay for the night.

The awkwardness that Kolirin stirs up from there as the guys settle in for the night with their unlikely hosts has nothing to do with decades-long cultural and actual warfare and everything to do with things that people all over planet Earth can identify with. Like having unexpected company crash our domestic tranquility… or lack thereof, and discovering the petty battles that go on in the privacy of our homes. Like how an encounter with someone with a surprising outlook can shake up our own complacency… for serious, gentlemanly Tewfiq ends up at Dina’s place, along with the band’s self-appointed ladies’ man, Khaled (up-and-coming Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri, who is a charmer), and this odd little triangle creates all sorts of discomfort…

Israel submitted The Band’s Visit to the Oscars in 2007, hoping it would be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film — but it was disqualified, because more than 50 percent of the film’s dialogue is in English (the rest is in Arabic and Hebrew). Maybe that was a crushing blow for the filmmakers, but it’s actually probably a sign, its banishment from certain film festivals aside, that Kolirin has achieved some of what he has said he hopes to achieve with the film: merely to demonstrate that people are people no matter what language they speak or what culture they hail from. For the filmmaker has certainly cleared a space in a middle ground in which we can all recognize that the hopes and fears and disappointments that haunt us the most are pretty universal.

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