The Band’s Visit film review

(This review originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on July 4, 2008.)

Written and directed by Eran Kolirin

Starring Sasson Gabai, Ronit Elkabetz, Saleh Bakri, Khalifa Natour

It made it on to a number of “top ten” movie lists for 2007.  It won eight Israeli Film Academy awards (and was nominated for another five), two European Film Awards, and a slew of other international festival awards from Cannes to Tokyo.  But The Band’s Visit (“Bikur Ha-Tizmoret”) was not allowed to compete in the most recent Academy Award’s Best Foreign Language film because – incongruously – more than half of the movie’s dialogue is in English.

The Band’s Visit from first-time feature writer/director Eran Kolirin is a bittersweet and deliberately paced mournful film which takes place “not long ago” and charts just over 24 hours of gentle misadventures of the Egyptian Alexandrian Police Band.  Arriving in Israel dressed in their baby blue band uniforms for a concert, no one meets them at the airport.  After stoically waiting, the proud and dignified band leader Tewfiq (played by accomplished Israeli actor Sasson Gabai) decides the band must make their own way to “Beit Hatikvah” (a mispronounced attempt at “Petach Tikvah”), and they duly board a bus which deposits them in a dusty, bleak and almost deserted development town in the Negev. 

As they arrive at a local restaurant and duly ask the owner Dina (a stunning Ronit Elkabetz) directions to the local Arab cultural centre, the bitter reply is that there is no Arab culture, no Jewish culture and no culture there at all there.  Thus the tone is set – Beit Hatikvah is the very opposite of a “house of hope”:  its residents, most of them misfits, seem to have lost all hope and have washed up there as a last resort, with no ambition to move anywhere or do anything else.  In Dina we see the fiery embers of a strong, sensual personality.  As the last bus has already gone, she invites Tewfiq and young Khaled (Saleh Bakri, a Palestinian actor who is perfectly cast in the role) to stay at her flat, as the others are billeted at places around the town.

Assistant conductor Simon (played by Khalifa Natour, another Palestinian actor) and two others stay with an Israeli family where the women of the two couples are openly contemptuous of their husbands.  While Dina takes Tewfiq exploring the town, Khaled hitches along on a double-date with some locals and has the opportunity for a hilarious coaching session of a young Israeli man who has absolutely no idea how to relate to women.  It’s that sort of movie:  filled with minutely observed interactions, deeply lonely characters often unable to rise out of their melancholy, unfulfilled lives and pregnant silences.  In fact for a film that is ostensibly about music, there is remarkably little sound – almost no background score and relatively little musical performance.

The eight members of the Egyptian band are notably more reserved and dignified than their Israeli hosts, and the interaction between these Arab men and the Israelis is often stilted with occasional flashes of deep emotional sharing.  Setting the film in the recent past (and distinctly a time prior to the universal ownership of mobile phones) is a good technique and gives the film an odd nostalgic feel.  The director is making many points about Israeli society, including the obvious one about the importance of Arab-Jewish communication, but other and more subtle statements about a cultural and emotional emptiness and isolation in Israel.

With its slow and careful story-telling, The Band’s Visit may not be for all viewers.  Forget the flashy action of Eytan Fox – whose recent film Walk on Water was the only other Israeli film recently released in Australian cinemas.  The Band’s Visit develops and sustains its quiet humour through its stark images, quiet knowing and deep characterisation.

The film (at least the print I saw) is subtitled throughout – including the English, the language used by the Egyptian and Israeli characters to communicate with each other – which I found a bit disconcerting.  Clearly someone felt that the audience might not understand the Arab and Israeli accented English, a resonance of the oft-reported subtitling of Australian films in the USA.

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