The opening scene is almost like a mime's routine. At an airport, a man leaves the driver's side of a white van and slowly walks to the back, opens the doors, and pulls out a bright yellow exercise ball. He puts the ball into the passenger seat, and the screen goes black for script narration: "Once, not long ago, a small Egyptian police band arrived in Israel. Not many remember this, it was not that important." And the van drives away, revealing eight stiff-looking men in blue uniforms, standing in a row on the sidewalk in the distance. Then, as the men remain motionless in the background, a baggage handler walks across the foreground of the screen, wheeling a single suitcase.
That type of subtle, undercutting humor continues throughout this charming film, which seems to downplay its own "importance" in every frame. It's a slice-of-life film that just happens to involve fish-out-of-water Egyptians experiencing an Israeli slice of life. Meet the Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra, who have traveled to Israel to play an invited concert at the local Arab Culture Center. As this group follows its stoic, old-school leader-first, on a bus ride to the wrong town, and then wheeling their bags and instruments from the bus stop to the buildings in this remote hamlet-the eight men are dwarfed by the expanse of desert, by the skyline of uniform apartment housing, and by a world that is getting ready to pass them by. The Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra is in danger of losing its funding, and a botched concert isn't going to help.
In town, they approach the first sign of life: a small restaurant with tables out front, in which two Israeli men sit, both fascinated and indifferent. The place is run by Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), a sexy older woman whose jeans, long hair, and easy manner clearly ruffle the Muslim visitors . . . especially the leader, Tawfiq (Sasson Gabai). The most unrattled band member is the tallest, youngest, and newest member: a would-be womanizer named Haled (Saleh Bakri), whose flirtation with the bus station worker may have been indirectly responsible for the band ending up in the wrong location. As Tawfiq approaches Dina and asks if she could please tell him where the Arab Culture Center is, she tells them, like a tough and savvy female who probably served in the Israeli army (since there are pictures of tanks and such all over her restaurant), that there is no Arab Culture Center, no Israeli Culture Center, no culture center of any kind. No culture at all--which is echoed in a humorous punchline from one of the men sitting outside. This is the kind of humor we get in "The Band's Visit," a mostly subtle and wry look at life. The most outrageous scene comes later at a roller rink, where Haled is trying to coach his young Israeli host how to respond to a young woman. The three of them sit on a bench, the girl weeping far left, and Haled on the far right. He whispers first, but then hands his new friend a handkerchief, which he offers to the woman. Then Haled puts his hand on the man's knee, and, getting the message, the man does the same to the woman. Then comes the knee massage, and finally the arm around the shoulder. Though Haled stops short of the kiss, by this time the timid Israeli has gotten the point. It's a scene that you really have to see to experience how funny it is, and one that bears rewatching. That's the way it is with a number of scenes in this understated comedy that's as deadpan throughout as Tawfiq, with his old-guard emphasis on honor and tradition.
The opening disclaimer was right. Nothing big or really important happens in this film. The stranded musicians spend a night in a town where there's no hotel, and no bus leaving for their actual destination until the next morning. And yet, it feels as otherworldly as a moonwalk, with these small steps taken by members of the band and the Israelis who take them in feeling somehow larger, like the footprint of humanity. Music bridges the gap. So does conversation, or a shared meal, a night on the town, or a little shared wine or liquor, or the sense that they are joined by similar stories of how people meet and fall in love, or how people dream and fall short of their dreams. In small ways, they help each other, and in a world where there's far too little of that, this film by Eran Kolirin is a nice start.
The cinematography by Shai Goldman wonderfully captures the sense of the band's isolation, how they're on the edge of a new social frontier as well. And the wry tone of the film is consistent (and consistently funny) throughout, with one main turning point coming not even coming as a surprise, because Kolirin's screenplay is character-driven, and no one acts out of character.
Though there are eight band members, the film has two main stars and two lesser ones. As the stiff, uniformed Egyptian leader the locals call "General," Gabai manages to convey a host of complex emotions and underlying reasons for his unwavering behavior-a less stupefied version of what we saw from Bill Murray in "Lost in Translation." The "General" may be lost in a number of ways, but he knows who he is and his actions reflect that. Then there's Elkabetz, who's sultry and sensuous as Dina. As much as we understand why Tawfiq is the way he is, we begin to learn how important circumstance is in shaping not just the lives of people, but their personalities as well.
"The Band's Visit" may be a small film, but it has a big heart.
"The Bands Visit" is mastered in High Definition, and so the picture quality on this DVD is excellent. Colors are bright, and the edge delineation is really very good for a non-HD transfer. The film is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen.
The audio is a pretty standard English/Hebrew/Arabic Dolby Digital 5.1, with all three languages spoken. Just as English is the common language ground for the band members and Israelis, it's the sole subtitle option. It's not a particularly dynamic soundtrack, but what you notice is that it's relatively free of hiss, crackle, and distortion--which is important, since silence plays a big part in many of the scenes.
The bonus features are scant. Aside from a photo gallery, the only other feature is "The Band's Visit: Making the Fairy Tale," which is a pretty standard look at the film's genesis and intent. Still, it's good to have.
"The Band's Visit" is an unexpected delight, and it charmed me the way that it did the audiences and juries at international film festivals. The film won awards at 35 festivals, including the Jury Coup de Couer at Cannes, the Audience Award at the Copenhagen International Film Festival, Feature Film Award at the Montreal Festival of New Cinema, Audience Award at the Munich Film Festival, and the Tokyo Grand Prix award at the Tokyo International Film Festival. It's a great little film that's deserving of a wide audience.