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The Band's Visit

By Bret McCabe | Posted 3/12/2008

Israeli writer/director Eran Kolirin doesn't mess that much with the fish-out-of-water setup for his feature debut, The Band's Visit, and he comes away with a sweetly inoffensive confection. It's the sort of movie that uses heartwarming clichés and narrative contrivances, but doesn't employ them toward opportunistic conclusions. Visit isn't going to teach you anything about Arab-Israeli relations, but that it's not concerned with addressing such themes even though its entire premise is predicated on those two cultures clashing makes the movie feel slightly less precious, and it never dissolves into offensive naiveté.

The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra--a small Egyptian ensemble clad in powder-blue police uniforms and led by the by-the-book Lt.-Col. Tawfiq Zacharya (the great Sasson Gabai)--has been invited to play an Arab cultural center in Israel. But when their transport van doesn't show, the band's Chet Baker-loving young violinist/lothario, Haled (the model-handsome Saleh Bakri), accidentally purchases bus tickets to the wrong town. They end up in a small, barren hamlet of concrete housing projects where, as they're informed by stunning café owner Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), there's "no culture at all."

The insufficiency of language is one of Visit's understated themes, as the Egyptians speak primarily Arabic, the local residents speak Hebrew, and they're forced to communicate in English, a second language to both groups. Dina convinces her friend Itzik (Rubi Moskovitz) to take in a few band members for the night, as there are no hotels in town and the bus doesn't return until the next day. And over the course of the evening, Egyptians and Israelis cohabit in awkward moments of candid intimacy and some wonderfully droll comic set pieces.

Audiences of a certain age will recall that Egypt and Israel fought intermittently from 1948 until '79, and no doubt both Egyptian and Israeli citizens are more than aware of their countries' fractious histories. Fortunately, Visit never brings up that history explicitly--or, when it does, it's in a comically mundane moment, such as when one of the band's members covers a photo of a tank with his hat--but you sense some tension in almost every conversation and encounter between the local people and the musicians. They may not be fighting now, but what do you do when your so-called enemy of 30 years shows up on your doorstep in need of assistance?

Visit, to its credit, doesn't dare answer that question, as it's more concerned with whom these people are rather than how countries should behave. And it's in this smallness that Visit makes some big statements. These characters--Tawfiq and Dina, Itzik and Haled--suffer from a personal sadness that has metastasized into an incarcerating loneliness. So while, yes, everything technically works out in the end--the band makes its appointed appearance--for everyone involved, you sense a chronic solitude permeating their lives that this charming and unexpected deviation from the norm isn't going to alleviate. But it just might remind them that they should try to find something--or someone--that will.

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