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THE BAND'S VISIT
Written and directed by Eran Kolirin. Hebrew title: Bikur Ha Tizmoret. 85 minutes. In Hebrew, Arabic, and English, with English and Hebrew subtitles.
When this assured, funny and moving film won the top prize at the Jerusalem Film Festival this summer, no one was surprised. In fact, if anyone was betting, it would have been even money to win. It's earned awards at just about every festival where it's played (including three at Cannes) and will continue to win as it makes its way around the globe. Finally, it's opening here, offering special resonance for Israeli audiences. If you saw some terrible Israeli films a few years ago and swore never to see another, this is the movie that should inspire you to break that vow. It's both quintessentially Israeli and an enjoyable experience that will touch audiences no matter what their background.
The premise is deceptively simple. A police band from Cairo heads to Israel to perform at a concert for the opening of an Arab music festival in Petah Tikva, but because of a foul-up that will be all too familiar to anyone who lives here, no one shows up the airport to meet them. Since they're traveling on a shoestring budget and are led by their proud conductor Tawfiq (Sasson Gabai), they decide to proceed by bus.
Making their way to the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv and speaking heavily accented English, they end up on the wrong bus (the result of a very funny gag I won't give away here) and find themselves in a desolate Negev town. The only sign of life is at the kiosk, which is run by Dina (Ronit Elkabetz). The last bus has just left, she informs them, so they will have to spend the night in a town that clearly has no hotel. Dina, a friendly, single woman who is happy for the diversion, divides up the group among the unemployed guys who hang around the cafÃ©, while a couple come home with her.
It's an artificial set-up, but it doesn't matter, as the film examines the cultural differences between the formal, polite but baffled Egyptians and the more relaxed, schleppier Israelis. While these differences are real, the similarities are equally compelling. After all, the Israelis in this town are not Tel Aviv sophisticates. They're unemployed or underemployed, and although they don't speak Arabic, are largely from North African and Middle Eastern backgrounds (except for a few who are recent Russian immigrants).
It's a foregone conclusion in a movie like this that the characters will make some kind of connection, but how it all plays out is both entertaining and, if not actually surprising, very real and engaging.
The movie focuses on the encounter between Dina and Tawfiq. If both were from the same culture, she would probably find him ridiculously nerdy, while he would see her as a slut. But here, over a meal of food familiar to both of them at a local humous restaurant, they actually see each other as human beings. They are both alone, he because he has lost his family through a tragedy he feels guilty about, and she because she never settled down when it would have been easy and now feels it's too late. Both are stuck, in different ways and for different reasons. She can't pick up and leave this dead-end town to start a new life, and he has devoted himself to this antiquated band that won't be funded forever. The scenes between them are the heart of the movie, and they will stay with you long after the film is over.
There are other plots as well, one of which involves the young ladies' man of the band, Khaled (Saleh Bakri). He agrees to tag along with a nervous, shy Israeli, Papi (Shlomi Avraham), who has been fixed up with a girl to go roller skating. In a charming, old-fashioned scene, Khaled proves to be not just a handsome guy but a patient teacher as he whispers instructions to Papi.
Of course, all the characters are drawn a bit broadly, but Kolirin has created them with such affection, and the actors bring them to life with such skill, that you can barely notice the exaggeration.
To Kolirin's everlasting credit, he never tries to teach a lesson about Israeli-Arab relations. There is a certain built-in poignancy in the cordial meeting between representatives of countries that were once engaged in mortal combat on the very sands where they now have coffee together. But although this gives the film a certain subtext, it stays under wraps, as it should. The only messages here are about loneliness, friendship and wasted opportunities.
The entire cast is superb. Standouts are Elkabetz and Gabai - two actors who have given less-subtle performances in the past, but who triumph here. You may remember Elkabetz as the AIDS-infected prostitute in Or, as the discontented Moroccan wife in To Take a Wife, or in many other roles. Gabai most recently played the untrustworthy writer in Aviva My Love. Saleh Bakri is excellent in both the comic and dramatic scenes, as well as being stunningly handsome.
The Band's Visit is a wonderful movie, and if it were from Japan, the US, or the Czech Republic, Israelis would surely flock to it. Don't let the fact that it's a local production keep you from enjoying one of the year's best films.