Earlier this fall, The Band’s Visit made headlines after being disqualified as Israel’s foreign-language submission to the 2008 Academy Awards — an ironic fate, indeed, for a movie that takes language as its very subject. The official ruling of the Oscar referees was that too much of the film’s dialogue is in English, which it may well be, though it’s English of the sort that even most native speakers will need subtitles to parse. (Don’t worry, they’re there.) This heavily accented dialect is the only common tongue shared by the movie’s characters — the members of an Egyptian policemen’s orchestra booked to perform at the opening of an Arab cultural center, and the denizens of the desert Israeli backwater, where the musicians become waylaid after taking the wrong bus from the airport. Who can blame them for getting lost, given the disclosure in the film’s press notes that the road signs leading to and from the Tel Aviv airport no longer include Arabic translations?
So, instead of Petah Tikva, the band winds up in Bet Hatikva, a place just this side of the middle of nowhere and home to “no Arab culture, no Israeli culture, no culture at all.” Those acerbic words are pronounced by Dina, the brassy divorcee who runs the roadside cafe where the men first realize their predicament, and she’s a majestic creation. Played by actress Ronit Elkabetz, best known in this country for her equally remarkable performance as the love object of a 31-year-old bachelor in the 2001 Israeli import Late Marriage, she’s the kind of woman who reduces men to putty with one shot of her sultry gaze and her no-bullshit attitude, but there’s nothing desperate about her — she’s been burned far too many times for that. It’s Dina who takes a liking to these unlikely visitors, especially to the curmudgeonly widower conductor, Tewfiq (the superb Sasson Gabai, who resembles a Middle Eastern Peter Falk). She even invites them to stay the night, securing lodging for them with a few (not entirely willing) friends and neighbors, and The Band’s Visit is about what happens as these Arab interlopers prevail on the hospitality of a people whose country spent its first three decades at war with their own. In the hands of another filmmaker, that same basic set-up might have made for an overly earnest exercise in getting to know thy former enemy. But Eran Kolirin, the 34-year-old writer-director of The Band’s Visit, has a sense of humor as dry as Bet Hatikva’s arid desert wind and is too smart to bore us with ham-fisted humanistic bromides.
I said earlier that The Band’s Visit is about language, but more specifically, it’s about the inadequacies of language; about those thoughts/feelings/ideas that lie beyond words. In one such scene, the shy, sexually inexperienced gas-station attendant Papi (Shlomi Avraham) asks the band’s suave, Chet Baker-quoting violinist Khaled (Saleh Bakri) to describe the feeling of making love to a woman, to which Khaled responds in long, rapturous phrases of untranslated Arabic. Later, when Dina asks Tewfiq about the pleasure he takes from his work, words fail him entirely, and he instead begins to wave his arms, conducting the imaginary music that courses through his body. Indeed, if it’s English that allows the characters to be understood, it’s only through song that they can truly express themselves, whether it’s the original clarinet concerto that Tewfiq’s melancholic second-in-command (Khalifa Natour) has been struggling to complete for years, or the spontaneous group performance of Gershwin’s “Summertime” that helps to thaw the air over a very tense dinner table.
Kolirin, who has written screenplays and worked in television but has never directed a feature before, has the instincts of a popular entertainer and the disposition of an artist. He takes raw materials that could easily be rendered as kitsch — a fish-out-of-water story, the idea of music as a universal language, Arabs and Israelis laughing it up together — and he builds them into something unexpectedly lyrical and resonant. That is especially true of the relationship between Dina and Tewfiq, which never goes quite where we expect it will, but which always hums with the closely observed honesty of two proud, broken people cautiously opening themselves up to one another.
I’d be lying if I said that The Band’s Visit isn’t touching and uplifting and all those other audience-friendly emotions against which film critics are believed to religiously steel themselves. But in a season rife with movies (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Grace Is Gone, The Kite Runner, et al.) that aggressively pry open viewers’ chest cavities and yank on their heartstrings, Kolirin’s film is the only one that plucks at them gently, tickling the funny bone as it goes. It has an elating lightness that belies its heavy subject — peace, or at least conversation, in the Middle East — and it leaves you filled with a sense of possibility. In The Band’s Visit, “the end” is only the beginning for the characters, and as they go on their separate ways, perhaps a bit the wiser, we feel sure they will someday meet again, once upon another time.
THE BAND’S VISIT | Written and directed by ERAN KOLIRIN | Produced by EILON RATZKOVSKY, EHUD BLEIBERG, YOSSI UZRAD, KOBY GAL-RADAY and GUY JACOEL | Released by Sony Pictures Classics | Music Hall