‘The Band’s Visit’ is a welcome arrival

It is with great apprehension that I relate to you the logline of The Band’s Visit: a police band from Egypt travels to Israel to perform traditional Arab music. I know what you’re thinking – you’d rather be tarred and feathered. A foreign film loaded with political commentary and trite multiculturalism, right? Wrong. In fact, Israeli writer-director Eran Kolirin’s debut feature offers a subtle and humane exploration of the universality of loneliness that often finds humor in desolate places, both literally and figuratively.

The film begins with an appropriately quirky introduction to the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra. A big white van drives off-screen to reveal a chorus line of eight Egyptian band members, wearing matching powder blue military uniforms and holding their instrument cases. If the van hadn’t moved, we might as well assume this image is a still: the men are motionless, stuck in this foreign country, Israel, that has for so long been in conflict with their homeland. They are noticeably uncomfortable and the director makes us share in their discomfort by creating this quiet, awkward scene.

The band has arrived to perform at the Arab cultural center, but they are stranded at the airport with no way of getting to their destination. Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai), the band’s no-nonsense leader, orders the handsome violinist Kahled (Saleh Bakri) to solve their problem, but they end up taking a bus to the wrong town. Instead of Pet Hatikvah, they wind up in Bet Hatikvah, a rural town with nothing to see or do (sound familiar?).

Like a row of motherless ducklings, the confused band wanders around this barren town until it settles on a small restaurant run by a brassy woman named Dina (Ronit Elkabetz). There are no more buses out of town and no hotels to spend the night. Noting their desperation, Dina offers them housing: three will sleep in the restaurant, three will stay at her friend Itzik’s home (Rubi Moskovitz) and two, Kahled and Tewfiq, will stay with her. The film focuses on their night in this unfamiliar town and the unforeseen similarities between the Egyptians and Israelis.

The characters of this film are all discontent, whether plagued by feelings of loneliness, boredom or underachievement. Nothing changes for them even when the credits roll, for this is not a film about people solving their problems, but about people understanding that their problems are universal.

In a discreet and satisfying way, Kolirin has made a film that we have seen many times before. It is a film about people who are supposed to be different and supposed to hate each other, but wind up identifying with one and other.

This film is deeply interested in the binding power of music. In a charming scene, three band members share an awkward dinner with Itzik’s family. Knowing that the Egyptians won’t understand, the Israelis complain in Hebrew about the band’s presence. But, when someone begins to sing a Middle Eastern rendition of George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” everyone at the table ends up singing together – in harmony.

In another scene, one of the band members sits down next to an Israeli who, in response, sneers at the musician’s audacity. But when the musician begins playing his clarinet, the Israeli is seduced by the music and opens a conversation.

Most clear is how the music binds the members of the band. Despite their arguments, eccentricities and differences in age and outlook, when they perform their country’s music in the final scene, they are truly one entity. Although the capacity of music is overemphasized and sometimes corny, the lack of sentimentality in and the peculiarity of this world we are entering overshadow any qualms we might have had.

It is false to say that this film is apolitical – it is just covert in its beliefs. It seems to me as if Kolirin is claiming that peace treaties and negotiations are useless in trying to pacify these opposing nations. Instead, it is only through shared experience – in this case with the help of music – that people will realize their similarities and possibly reconcile their differences.

In The Band’s Visit, Kolirin has found beauty in the simplicity of this town and story. His direction is efficient, but he is undoubtedly concerned with pleasing the eye as much as the soul. We leave this film having experienced a range of emotions, from subdued laughter to affecting sadness, and having witnessed a pleasing story of people letting go of preconceptions. In the process, maybe we too have let go of some preconceptions, like one we may have about a movie that follows a police band from Egypt that performs traditional Arab music in Israel.