2007 // Israel - USA - France // Eran Kolirin // March 22, 2008 // Theatrical Print
B - Eran Kolirin's The Band's Visit is a film as light as meringue, but with a rich, complex flavor. It rests on the well-worn comedic premise that strangers trapped together in one location invariably provide insight and wisdom to one another. One might term this rule the "Breakfast Club principle" and the films that follow it "anti-road comedies." In this case, an Egyptian police band finds itself stranded in a backwater Israeli village for one memorable night. Although the story sticks close to the traditional fish-out-water formula, Kolirin's insightful and nuanced thematic layering adds up to something more rewarding. The resulting film is unexpectedly dense, lovingly rendered, and occasionally laugh-out-loud hilarious.
Owing to confusion over a Hebrew name, the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra mistakenly catches a bus to a dusty town lacking even a hotel (although it does have a tiny roller disco). The band has a performance scheduled for the following day at a nearby city's Arab Cultural Center. No buses will arrive until the morning, however. They're effectively marooned with nothing to their names other than their crisp, sky-blue uniforms and their beloved instruments. Kolirin's characters fit into familiar archetypes, making this English-Hebrew-Arabic tale easy to follow, if a bit formulaic. The musicians include the severe, patriarchal conductor, Tawfiq (Sasson Gabai), the glum would-be-composer, Simon (Khalifa Natour), and the rash lothario, Haled (Saleh Bakri). The villagers they encounter encompass an alluring restaurant owner, Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), an unemployed family man, Itsik (Rubi Moskovitz), and a hopelessly awkward youth, Papi (Shlomi Avraham).
Fortunately for the hapless band, Dina is a generous soul. She offers up sleeping space for the stranded musicians at her restaurant, her apartment, and Itsik's home (despite his objections). Over the course of the evening, little dramas and amusing sketches unfold. Most of the musicians make themselves as unobtrusive as possible, while a few vainly wander the village in search of entertainment. It's fairly easy to anticipate how the various personalities will collide. Vigorous as a greyhound and sensual as a desert cat, Dina is an obvious foil for humorless Tawfiq, and naturally she starts chipping away at his stiff demeanor. Naturally, Simon and Itsik throw one another's failings and fortunes into perspective. Naturally, a smooth operator like Haled gives Papi some pointers on the art of seduction.
For the most part, The Band's Visit clicks into place like a smooth, shiny edifice of Lego bricks. On the surface, there's nothing subversive or exceptional in its components, but as a gratifying comedy its execution is essentially flawless. Consider one memorable scene in a roller disco involving Haled, Papi, and the girl the latter hopes to woo. The scene--captured in one long, ambitious shot--is so broad that it might have been plucked from a Mr. Bean sketch. However, the performances are so perfect that I found myself helplessly smiling, then giggling, then bursting with laughter. Kolirin and his actors have an astonishing sense of comedic timing. Furthermore, they often add a wounded, sympathetic element to characters that might have otherwise been one-note.
The Band's Visit could have been as sweet and forgettable as chewing gum, but Kolirin's script and direction masterfully add intricate subtext with economical strokes. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict--and by extension Jewish-Muslim antagonism--is never far from mind, but Kolirin isn't much interested in browbeating his audience, or in projecting geopolitics onto a personal story. (One blackly humorous exception concerns a musician and villager who wordlessly, ominously clash over the use of a pay phone.) Kolirin's touch is generally softer, and his ambitions broader. The Band's Visit alights on several dichotomies: urban and rural, tradition and liberality, utility and beauty. Fortunately, the film never feels overextended or aimless. Kolirin demonstrates remarkable talent in bestowing authentic thematic density on a tale as artificial as Nutrasweet. In short, he makes the contrived feel real.
The performances in The Band's Visit are quite good, never deeper than they absolutely need to be, but always unerring in tone. The natural standouts are Gabai and Elkabetz, who take command of the film's heart as Tawfiq and Dina. Gabai renders Tawfiq with the sort of empathetic care that should put most American comedic actors to shame. He knows exactly when to add a second of throat-closing hesitation in the conductor's responses, exactly how to blink, glance, and purse his lips to convey the man's starched and pressed emotional landscape. Elkabetz, all frizzed black hair and huge, heavy-lidded eyes, is almost unnaturally seductive--a perilous mirage--but her allure is all the stronger because the actress sells it so effectively. Dina's cosmopolitan, liberated nature repels as often as it attracts, and puts her at odds with her dismal, conservative environs.
The Band's Visit is sweet and sentimental, and a tad conventional in places. Nonetheless, it serves up a satisfying helping of sincere laughs, and discovers some justly touching moments. Refreshingly, the film is free of the pompous melodrama that afflicts most road comedies and anti-road comedies. Moreover, Kolirin is skilled at detecting the complicated, humane pulses in seemingly cartoonish characters. His is a comedic filmmaking talent to watch carefully. In the meantime, I suggest enjoying The Band's Visit for what it is: a savory confection to share with the people you care for.