The Band’s Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret )

"My fish was much bigger than your fish."

“My fish was much bigger than your fish.”

(2007) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Sasson Gabai, Ronit Elkabetz, Saleh Bakri, Khalifa Natour, Uri Gavriel, Shlomi Avraham, Imad Jabarin, Ahuva Keren, Francois Khell, Hisham Khoury, Tarak Kopty, Rinat Matatov, Rubi Moskovitz, Hilla Sarjon. Directed by Eran Kolirin

From time to time, plans go awry and we’re forced to improvise. Sometimes those moments of having to wing it reveal a lot about ourselves and have lasting repercussions on the rest of our lives.

The police band of Alexandria, Egypt is invited to Israel to play at the opening of an Arab Cultural Center. The bandleader, Colonel Tawfiq Zacharya (Gabai), is a ramrod-straight by-the-book sort of man, wrestling with the budget difficulties that are threatening the very existence of the band and the growing disposable nature of music in an increasingly apathetic world. He is told in no uncertain terms to represent Egypt properly while in Israel.

Once they arrive, things fall apart. The bus that’s sent to take them from the airport to the cultural center never arrives. Colonel Zacharya, ever the one for self-reliance, sends the womanizing Khaled (Bakri) to inquire about commercial bus service to the town they need to get to, but even this goes awry. The bus dumps them in a small town in the middle of the desert with only a clean and pretty superhighway showing any signs of civilization whatsoever.

Nonetheless, the small line of eight awkward Egyptian men in sky-blue band uniforms complete with gold braid and epaulets trudge to the center of town where the only sign of life shows; a tiny café where two slackers lounge in the sidewalk chairs. They summon the proprietor, a darkly beautiful woman named Dina (Elkabetz). When Zacharya asks in halting English (the universal language of the Middle East, apparently) where the Arab Cultural Center may be found, she says wryly “No Arab Cultural Center. Here there is no Arab culture. Also, no Israeli culture. Here there is no culture at all.”

It turns out they are in the wrong town, one that has a similar name to the one they were meant to go to. Worse yet, bus service has discontinued for the day and there is no hotel. After feeding the tired, hungry band, Dina arranges for the band members to be put up in the homes of the previously mentioned slackers, while taking Colonel Zacharya and Khaled to her own apartment. As the evening wears on, the uncomfortable Egyptians interact with the equally uncomfortable Israelis. In their uncomfortable silences, the realization grows that they are not as unalike as they might have thought.

The two leads are marvelous. Gabai’s craggy, weathered face (with a nose that would make the ghost of Jimmy Durante smile in satisfaction) hints at a soul battered by the world, but his carefully maintained composure, using polite gentility as a wall to protect him from the loneliness and pain surrounding him, speaks volumes. Dina is a woman who has seen life pass her by as she enters middle age. Still beautiful and able to find lovers, she has as yet been unable to find love. Her loneliness is palpable as she reaches out to the Colonel, obviously attracted to him, but unable to breach his walls. Elkabetz portrays that lonely core expressively through her eyes and body language; it really is a breathtaking performance. The fact that there is no way anything could possibly come of this in that place and time makes it all the more bittersweet.

Writer/Director Kolirin whose resume is mostly Israeli television programs proves a deft hand with a feature. His pacing is unhurried, matching the pace of life in the Israeli village, which suited me just fine. However, the pace may be a bit too languid for American audiences, who tend to prefer their comedies rapid-fire. Cinematographer Shai Goldman captures the desolation of the village, with the juxtaposition of the blue-clad band members making the ridiculous reasonable. When the band finally plays at the movie’s conclusion, the music is lovely and exotic.

The relationship between Dina and Colonel Zacharya is a wonderful glimpse into two souls who are basically good, but have been wounded by bad choices, bad luck and tragedies that may or may not have been out of their control. The comedy here is not broad and rapid-fire in the way of a Judd Apatow comedy, but more subtle, yet I still laughed out loud – and quite loudly too – on several occasions. The movie is gentle and endearing in a way that isn’t forced, something that you rarely see in American movies.

This is a gentle film that discusses the universal trait of loneliness, something that goes beyond culture, nation or religion. The pace is slow enough to nearly lull you to sleep, but I found it a means to easily enter into the charm of the movie. I suspect that this will appeal to a very limited audience; it simply doesn’t seem to resonate with general American audiences. Still, there are some fine performances and a look into a pair of cultures we know only in the broadest of terms. I liked it a lot more than the rating I gave it, but I can’t in good conscience recommend it for everybody. It takes patience and a willingness to be transported on a lazy river of charm. Those who like to see movies other than (or more than) the major Hollywood releases will find this rewarding; others who prefer their comedies broad and fast-paced will be bored.

WHY RENT THIS: Gentle charm. Elkabetz and Gabai give lovely performances.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too slow-paced for some.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is some sexual innuendo, and a curse word here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Band’s Visit was originally submitted as Israel’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2008 Oscars but the Academy rejected the nomination as the film’s dialogue is more than 50% in English.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a photo gallery to go with most of the usual extras.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $14.6M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Flixster
NEXT: Rebound