VIDEO: The trailer for The Band's Visit
Here’s another knock against the bonehead Foreign Language Oscar selections for 2007. Add to the egregious rebuff of Persepolis and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days the imbecilic blackballing of Israel’s The Band’s Visit — which opens this Friday at the Kendall Square — on the ground that it has too much English to qualify as a “foreign-language” film. Balderdash! The English in The Band’s Visit is the appropriate common tongue when Israelis and Egyptians find themselves rubbing against each other — which is what the film is about.
The Academy’s loss, for The Band’s Visit is a sublime, affecting movie, among the best ever made in Israel. And among the most unusual in style, tone, and storytelling. First-time writer/director Eran Kolirin is in line with other Israeli filmmakers in being a left-of-center peacenik who yearns for a world where Jews and Arabs are pals. But his way of framing his political concerns couldn’t be more different from the usual shrill Israeli dramas, which are overacted and pumped with righteous speechifying. “I get a headache when films are too filled up with people,” he’s said. “And I don’t understand what’s going on if there are too many extras walking around.” For The Band’s Visit, his cast is small, his story is tiny and fragile, and his relating of it is filled with gaps and silences and characters’ hesitations. There’s loneliness, and sadness, but also — so unexpected for an Israeli film — tangy sight gags.
There are architecture-based visual jokes worthy of French master Jacques Tati. There’s a bunch of dumpy, droll subsidiary characters that might remind you of the Czech New Wave casts of Milos Forman. And there’s a running chuckle about a phone booth in the middle of nowhere — what can only be an homage to Bill Forsyth’s Scots classic Local Hero. What an exemplary array of influences — and let’s toss in another: the tragicomedies of Chekhov. It took me several viewings of The Band’s Visit to grasp its connection to Three Sisters. The Israeli outpost where much of the story takes place, where cultured people are stifled, is as far from Tel Aviv as the trio of siblings are from Moscow. In both works, there’s hope for a time when the military arrives in town. In both, the arrival bookends with a heart-rending departure.
The story? A touring Egyptian band, the Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra, arrive in Israel in their starched, powder-blue uniforms with plans to help inaugurate an Arab Culture Center. Their English is faulty, so they land by accident in a dozing Israeli settlement in the desert. Yet nobody there seems to care one way or another that they’ve been invaded by Arabs. The visitors are a diversion, and for the lost tribesmen forced to reside in this g-d-forsaken town, they’re cosmopolitan sophisticates.
The band members are taken in and housed by Tina, a snappy-talking, casually sexy, 40ish divorcee (the extraordinary Ronit Elkabetz, with her world-weary, late-Dietrich delivery). She’s genuinely hospitable, but it’s obvious also that she has eyes for her two overnight guests. One, the band’s violinist (Saleh Bakri), is a young, handsome ladies man, winning the gals with his breathy singing imitation of Chet Baker. The other, the band’s shy, painfully formal, middle-aged leader (the magnificent Sasson Gabai, with his droopy proboscis), lives for traditional Egyptian music. How will the night play out?
Kolirin hints not only that can Arabs and Jews be at peace but, more radically, that they can hop into bed for a piece, if the ecumenical circumstances are right. Here, it turns out, Tina grew up on Egyptian melodramas on TV, madly smitten by Omar Sharif.