Friday, February 15, 2008

FILM: The Band's Visit

Last weekend, George and I saw the Israeli film The Band's Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret), and found it a charming film, full of humanity, about a group of Egyptian musicians lost in Israel. The plot is simple: the Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra, a group of eight Egyptians in formal powder blue uniforms, arrives in Israel to perform at the opening of an Arab cultural center. Nobody meets them at the airport as planned, they take the wrong bus, and end up in some remote desert outpost, stranded for the night. The feisty owner of a kebab café decides she'll put some of them up for the night, and she foists the others on some semi-willing regulars in the café. What really makes the movie is the characters that are slowly revealed in the interactions between the stranded band and their hosts. There is the band leader, Lieut-Colonel Tawfiq Zacharya, who is a proud martinet, stiff in the formal decorum he imposes on himself and his band, fretting about the declining respect the band gets from the Police Department (along with threatened budget cuts), but eloquent when he is drawn out, and with some sad secrets in his past. He sparks the interest of the café owner Dina, an impetuous but jaded husky-voiced beauty who's been worn down by bad relationships and her bleak existence. Sasson Gabai and Ronit Elkabetz bring exquisite nuance and eloquence to these roles, and their encounter over the course of the evening is very engaging to watch unfold. Gabai's face is a symphony all its own. Another character, Khaled, the youngest band member and a bit of a cynic and a playboy, not only adds some wonderful comic elements, but also affects Tawfiq in unexpected ways. And Itzik, one of the Israelis who takes home several band members for the night, has a touching exchange with Camal, a clarinetist with his own unfinished symphony. The whole film has an overarching tone of wistful melancholy humanity that reminded me of that endearing 1967 French film The King of Hearts (Le Roi de Coeur). Although the mixture of Egyptians and Israelis could have been a political live wire, writer/director Eran Kolirin masterfully sidelined any politics, keeping the film focused on his characters, and on the situation of strangers from different cultures and different languages discovering their common humanity. The language barrier is ever present in the film, in which the Egyptians speak Arabic amongst themselves, and the Israelis speak Hebrew, but most of the dialog is in unsure accented English, their only common language. (Ironically, the film was disqualified from the foreign film category at the Oscars because too much of it was in English.) Kolirin, who talks in interviews about how all Israelis used to watch Egyptian films in the 1980s, shows an appreciation for Arab music, poetry, and culture throughout the film, and there are a couple of nice scenes where Isaelis ask Egyptians to speak some Arabic just to hear the music of it. And there are moments when music and gestures say more than the characters can find words for. The actors, while not Egyptian, had a bit of their own cultural exchange. Sasson Gabai, though Israeli, was born in Iraq and speaks fluent Arabic. And a couple of Palestinian actors were used in the film, including Saleh Bakri as the playboy Khaled. The film has some wonderful comic scenes -- the band trying to pose for a photograph at the airport, and the playboy Egyptian teaching an inexperienced Israeli boy how to put the moves on a girl -- but the film is overarchingly melancholy rather than funny. The setting is a bleak desert settlement, which underscores the tone. When the band arrives looking for the Arab cultural center, Dina says sardonically "No Arab culture center here. No Israeli culture center here. No culture here." The Israelis may make the desert bloom, but the only thing "blooming" in this particular barren spot is a circle of Soviet-looking high-rise housing projects, with not even so much as a tumbleweed in the way of vegetation. The lives of many of the characters seem almost as bleak as the setting, but the humanity that emerges is as beautiful and unexpected as the famous Israeli blooming deserts.

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