Eugene Weekly : Movies : 3.20.08


Cross-country Music
A small tale of connection

THE BAND’S VISIT: Written and directed by Eran Kolirin. Cinematography, Shai Goldman. Music, Habib Shehadeh Hanna. Starring Sasson Gabai, Ronit Elkabetz, Saleh Bakri and Khalifa Natour. Sony Pictures Classics, 2008. PG13. 84 minutes.

Once, not long ago,” says the text at the start of Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit, “a small Egyptian police band arrived in Israel. Not many remember this. It was not that important.”

Dina (Ronit Elkabetz) and Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai) in The Band’s Visit

The dry introduction sets the tone for Kolirin’s bittersweet, thoughtful film: Sure, it wasn’t that important. Unless it happened to you. In subdued, gentle scenes, through careful performances and wonderful casting, against unusual skylines, Kolirin weaves a gently observant story about the things beyond physical borders and boundaries that set people apart or bring them together.

The blue-uniformed band that arrives in Israel is Egypt’s Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, led by Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai), a serious, order-loving man who’s feeling the pressure of possible budget cuts that would lead to the dissolution of his orchestra. When no one meets the band at the airport, Tewfiq is certain they can manage on their own and thereby help prove their worth. But juggling Hebrew, Arabic and English while asking for directions proves more than just awkward.

In a small town — the wrong town — in the middle of nowhere, the band arrives tired, hungry and hoping for something to go right. The best thing to happen to them is Dina (the wonderful Ronit Elkabetz), a wry, lazily sexy restaurant owner who invites the band to stay with her and her friends. Divided, they hardly conquer, but they do experience a strange, quiet, cross-cultural night that unfolds in just the right ways.

Dina takes to Tewfiq, whom she asks to speak in Arabic “just to hear the music”; the two argue not about politics, but about whether fishing is boring. Haled (Saleh Bakri), a bored young ladies’ man, convinces a nervous young Israeli to take him out on the town, where Haled’s impossibly broad shoulders take up too much room in a tiny car but his expertise with women comes in handy. Simon, who with two other band members is staying in the home of an unhappy married couple, finds inspiration for his unfinished concerto in a small room and a loneliness that’s universal yet not overwhelming.

Much of Kolirin’s film is set in in-between places, places lit with a gray-green shade that suggests something a little alien, a little off. Airports, cafeterias, a park that requires imagination, even a small table in Dina’s apartment are lit like this, the disconcerting light and deep shadows adding to the characters’ distance. Without ever saying something so obvious, The Band’s Visit is underlined by the idea of music as a means of communication that requires no words to express the deepest feelings, but it pairs that thought with ordinary conversations held in multiple languages — often the speaker’s second or third language — and with scenes wrapped in silence to create a sweetly funny, thoughtfully observant film about communication and connection across all kinds of lines — chiefly across the lines we draw around ourselves.

The Band’s Visit opens Friday, March 21, at the Bijou.


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