Feb 19, 2008

The Band's Visit

The Band's Visit is a small, charming Israeli film that is wise, well written, funny, deadpan and very human. The characters are real, the situation is slightly absurd and it is like a little wishful fable that humanizes neighbors who are perfectly capable of living in peace with each other, but won't.
The Egyptian Classical Orchestra of Alexandria (a police band, in fact, that plays beautiful classical Egyptian music), comes to Israel for an event and gets lost, ending, instead of in Petah Tikva, which is a minor city in Israel, in Bet Hatikva, which is a godforsaken one horse town in the middle of nowhere. The Egyptians, led by Tawfik, wonderfully played by Sasson Gabbai, are quiet and dignified, except for a young, handsome firebrand named Khaled, played by Saleh Bakri, who is the very handsome and talented son of the very handsome and talented Mohammed Bakri, who is one of Israel's best known actors and an Arab. The Israelis in the film are like they are, blunt and aggresive, represented by the fierce and lonely Dina, owner of a small restaurant on the side of the road who offers them hospitality and sees in them a chance to shuffle off the stifling boredom of the town, which she describes simply as dead. Plus, given that there is no bus until the next day, they are truly stranded and in need of help.
The movie just lets things happen. Dina takes Tawfik and Khaled home with her, she leaves some musicians in the restaurant and she asks her nebbishy friend to take some musicians with him home, even though it is his wife's birthday. It is a credit to the movie that its powers of observation are firmly rooted in reality and that it steadfastly refuses facile, sentimental gestures. Instead, it delivers a wonderful deadpan chronicle of true awkwardness and a lovely sense of the absurd, if not quite the surreal.
On the behest of Tawfik, a sad and serious band leader, the Egyptians comport themselves with utter dignity while the Israelis try their best, which is very funny. Eran Kolirin, the writer director, has a fantastic sense of emotional control and keen powers of observation. The gestures are always small and very significant and the deadpan is not devoid of feeling, which is hard to achieve. He finds a lovely balance between the dry humor and the emotional reality of the characters.
There is a great scene at the house of the nebbish with his sour wife berating him for ruining her birthday with the funniest repository of sarcasm I've heard in a long time. Hebrew, like Yiddish, can be a bitterly funny language and the way people speak in this movie makes great use of that. Then there is a wondrous scene in some roller skating rink disco that seems entirely possible under the circumstances. It seems totally surreal and totally realistic at the same time. It's what would be the idea of fun in a town like that.
The actors are all fantastic, and the direction is so intimate that you can almost feel the sense of awkwardness on your own skin. You can also fill in the blanks of all that is unsaid, all the political noise, all the hatred, the misunderstanding, all that is not there, but it is part of the subtext. But for once, these people are behaving like people, trying to strip themselves from the historical baggage and the ideological bullshit and just be together for one night.
The movie ends poignantly and quietly and thankfully without resorting to any dreaded clichés of the band playing noisily for everybody. But its concerns are real. The Band's Visit achieves what nobody thinks possible: that these Jewish and Arab individuals sit around a table and connect on a human level, as human beings and neighbors.

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