The Band’s Visit

We’ve just seen The Band’s Visit, Eran Kolirin’s highly-enjoyable Israeli film, the story of an Egyptian police marching band stranded in a small Israeli town.  The film is the first by director Kolirin; it has some sharp points to make about Israeli-Arab relations, but most of the laughs spring from good old-fashioned miscommunication and embarrassment. Stranded and unable to contact their embassy, the marching band are forced to seek shelter with the bemused locals, and must endure a long night of confusion, social gaffes and unrequited lust.

There is a lovely performance from Sasson Gabai as Tewfic, the rigidly traditional band leader whose formal facade gradually crumbles beneath the gaze of Ronit Alkabez’s lonely Jewish restauranteur.  Tewfic’s stoic acceptance of his farcical situation – completely lost in an unfriendly country and seriously overdressed to boot – gives the film a melancholy feel.

From the New York Times review:

Much of that melancholy involves Tewfiq; the band’s roguish violinist, Haled (Saleh Bakri, smooth as glass); and an Israeli restaurant owner, Dina (the great Ronit Elkabetz), a brusque, untamed beauty who offers the two shelter. (The other band members bed down elsewhere.) Over the course of a long, peripatetic evening, these three will unite and separate, fumble and parry. Finally they will reunite in Dina’s apartment, where, as they sit wearily around a table, Mr. Kolirin will cut from one face to the next in tight close-up. Despite their tentative, sometimes tender exchanges, the three remain essentially alone, an isolation underscored by the shallow depth of field that leaves only their faces in poignant focus.

The terminal loneliness that haunts this scene may be universal, but Mr. Kolirin also seems to be saying that a specific loneliness haunts Israel as well. At one point Dina blurts out to Tewfiq that she and her family used to love watching Egyptian movies on television. The streets of Israel, she says, her voice swelling, were empty because everyone else was watching too. But that was then, and now Dina and the rest of these Israeli townspeople sit in this seemingly barren land with its pregnant silences and wait. Surrounded by desert, a few longingly invoke the sea, summoning a desire, but for what? Mr. Kolirin, I think, suggests that this longing is for something the poet Marcia Falk calls the “Eternal wellspring of peace.”

From Roger Ebert’s review:

As Dina and Twefiq, Ronit Elkabetz and Sasson Gabai bring great fondness and amusement to their characters. She is pushing middle age, he is being pushed by it. It is impossible for this night to lead to anything in their future lives. But it could lead to a night to remember.

Gabai plays the bandleader as so repressed or shy or wounded that he seems closed inside himself. As we watch Elkabetz putting on a new dress for the evening and inspecting herself in the mirror, we see not vanity but hope.

In the morning, the band reassembles and leaves. “The Band’s Visit” has not provided any of the narrative payoffs we might have expected, but has provided something more valuable: An interlude involving two “enemies,” Arabs and Israelis, that shows them both as only ordinary people with ordinary hopes, lives and disappointments. It has also shown us two souls with rare beauty.


Extract: final ssene and credits

Songs in this extract: Ayam Fi Hodnik by Elias Attallah (Arabic); Kol Shee Helo by Reem Talhami (Israeli); Ayam Fi Hodnik (Days Spent in Your Arms) by Habib Shahadeh Hanna.

Extracts featuring ‘Kol Shee Helo’ sung by Reem Talhami

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