Egyptians and Israelis forge an unlikely, and unsappy, bond in The Band's Visit

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 — members of an Egyptian policemen's orchestra booked to perform at the opening of an Arab cultural center, and denizens of the Israeli backwater town where the musicians become waylaid after taking the wrong bus from the airport. And who is to blame them, given the disclosure in the press notes for The Band's Visit 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 uttered 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 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. 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. 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 theirs.

In the hands of many other filmmakers, that same setup 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, is too smart to bore us with ham-fisted humanistic bromides, and has a sense of humor as dry as Bet Hatikva's arid desert wind.

Universal language: Music connects small-town Israelis and traveling Egyptians in The Band's Visit.
Universal language: Music connects small-town Israelis and traveling Egyptians in The Band's Visit.

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Written and directed by Eran Kolirin. Starring Sasson Gabai, Ronit Elkabetz, Shlomi Avraham, and Saleh Bakri. Rated PG-13.

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I said at the start 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 coursing 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 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 builds them into something unexpectedly lyrical and resonant. This is especially true of the relationship between Dina and Tewfiq, which never goes quite where we expect it will, but 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 year rife with movies that aggressively pry open viewers' chest cavities and yank on their heartstrings, Kolirin's film merely plucks 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.

 
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