(No longer in theaters)
Eilon Ratzkovsky, Ehud Bleiberg, Yossi Uzrad, Koby Gal-Raday, Guy Jacoel
Sony Pictures Classics
Feb 8, 2008
There are a lot of blank stares in The Band’s Visit, one of those Napoleon Dynamite–like deadpan comedies in which the camera and the characters remain frozen for moments that go on … and on. The nerds of Napoleon Dynamite are dislocated existentially, though; here, the title characters are luckless Egyptians lost in Israel, a land that’s genuinely alien—and potentially hostile. The political context cuts against the overall sweetness, but only a little. Sweetness leaks from every frame.
The Egyptians are members of an Alexandrian police orchestra and supposed to play in a place called Petah Tikvah. But they end up in Bet Hatikvah (they don’t know Hebrew), the middle of nowhere, where they stand in a row beside the dusty road in robin’s-egg-blue military uniforms—staring blankly. There is no bus out until the next day. There is no hotel. There is, however, a little roadside café run by Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), a Sabra beauty who keeps a wry distance, then proves to be so hungry for contact she can barely stop wiggling suggestively. She wiggles especially suggestively not for the band’s irrepressible Romeo, Haled (Saleh Bakri), but its leader, Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai), a middle-aged little guy with a bulbous honker and an air of loss. You can predict the rest. The orchestra will spend the night; its members will have fleeting moments of connection with the Israelis; and Dina and Tewfiq will awkwardly get to the heart of their respective aloneness. It’s all so easily charted, but thanks to the actors’ faces and the wit (and economy) of the first-time Israeli director, Eran Kolirin, it breathes.
The Band’s Visit made headlines when Israel submitted it for a foreign-language Oscar and it was disqualified because more than half the dialogue is in English. That’s a particularly tin-eared decision because the English itself is distinctly foreign-language—it’s a halting middle ground on which the Arabic and Hebrew speakers can half-meet. The pleasure comes from watching the characters try to frame their thoughts in another tongue. In the film’s most glorious scene, Haled the ladies’ man finds himself in a roller disco with a young Israeli, who says (in English) that every time he tries to talk to a girl “I hear the sea in my ears.” He asks Haled what it’s like to sleep with a woman, and Haled says, “I can tell you, but only in Arabic”—and launches into a mellifluous monologue that’s so madly, gorgeously evocative that even without knowing a word of Arabic the young man is stirred to action. What follows—the balcony scene of Cyrano de Bergerac in pantomime—is even funnier.
The Band’s Visit resounds with tenderness and melancholy. What’s missing is even a hint of dissonance. Having established that unnerving political context, Kolirin treats the situation of Egyptians adrift in Israel as if it were, say, Chinese people in a North Miami Jewish condominium. There’s no threat—there’s barely a nod to the fact that the countries were at war. It’s a breeze making the case for universal harmony when all of your characters are neutered.