Monday, June 22, 2009

The Band’s Visit

The Band’s Visit (2007, dir. Eran Kolirin) is a small, modest film that gradually and unexpectedly flowers as you view it. With subtitles in both Hebrew and Arabic, it records the visit of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra to a small Israeli settlement. When one of the band members attempts to get directions to the settlement at an Israeli airport, a difficulty in pronouncing the town’s name results in his receiving directions to a different town, an isolated settlement in the middle of the desert, a place clearly not expecting or prepared for a visit from an Egyptian police band.

Every character in this film is an individual, from the sober, tired looking bandleader Tawfiq Zacharya (Sasson Gabi) to a young recruit, Haled (Saleh Bakri), who clearly irritates the bandleader at every turn, to the attractive and hungry-for-male-companionship proprietress of the restaurant, Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), whom the band members ask for assistance, to the young Israeli man stuck in an unhappy marriage. The film spends more time with some of these characters than with others. It is quiet and respectful of these individuals—it stands back, in effect, and allows their gestures, their facial expressions, their at first uncomfortable interactions to tell the tale.

At heart, The Band’s Visit is a gentle, compassionate comedy. It shows us how cultural differences and wariness break down as human individuals recognize what they hold in common. The most interesting character of all is the band leader Tawfiq. His wife is dead, we learn, as the result of heartbreak over their son’s suicide, for which he feels responsible. Tawfiq also feels responsible for the fate of the band, whose value has apparently been called into question. Gabi portrays Tawfiq in a wholly understated way. At first we see him as prim and Muslim proper, unwilling to interact on any but the most formal and reserved levels with the Israeli characters to whom he turns for assistance. Gradually we see him relax and emerge, tentatively, from his shell, and then we see him retreat back into it again.

One would expect, in this film about an orchestra (which is really only a small ensemble, a band of eight members), that we would hear the group play. Finally, ultimately, almost as a kind of afterthought, they do play, in a revelatory scene that resonates deeply.

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