The Band’s Visit

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Sony Pictures Classics
Eran Kolirin/Israel-France-United States 2007

Like many of its Israeli cinematic counterparts, The Band’s Visit engages with the national zeitgeist’s principle concern. However, rather than exploiting the pervasive fears of terrorism gripping the nation and turning those concerns into politicized dramatic fodder, writer-director Eran Kolirin lends them a humane, surrealistically comic perspective. His movie takes place in a small, dusty town located in the middle of the Negev Desert, as insular and isolated as any location in the tiny country. Thus, it logically follows that the interactions between the main characters, the members of an Egyptian Police Band lost on their way to the opening of an Arab cultural center, and three representatives of the town’s worn-down populace could be colored so differently than usual.

By locating the film in a setting far removed from the busy rhythms of modern urban life, Kolirin effectively develops an almost utopic aesthetic. The small town bares none of the downtrodden cynicism that so often dominates the everyday Israeli discourse. Issues like the peace process, the West Bank barrier and the complicated questions pertaining to Israel’s relationship with her neighbors all linger, but they don’t define the depicted daily lives. Rather, Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), the proprietor of a town restaurant, worries about growing old, childless and alone.

When circumstances force the members of the Police Band to spend the night in town, put up by Dina and two other townspeople, she finds herself drawn to Tawfiq (Sasson Gabai), the shy, exceedingly polite captain with personal demons of his own. Kolirin tinges their interactions with melancholy and regret, emphasizing the recognizably human emotions and fears shared by the characters. Though convention and our predispositions tell us that these are two vastly different individuals, coming from conflicting backgrounds and perspectives, the filmmaker powerfully offers an alternative to that notion.

The two other subplots follow several of the band members at an awkward birthday dinner and the organization’s youngest, most rebellious member (Saleh Bakri) as he tags along on a trip to the town roller rink. The same thematic strain runs through each, as Kolirin fills them with small moments of cross cultural recognition and bonding. The style with which he develops the milieu brings to mind the silent seriocomic cinema of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, relying on studied glances, visual symmetry and the promulgation of universal gestures to impart his perspective.

The vivid color scheme, which contrasts the light blue uniforms of the police officers with the sensual red dress donned by Dina, and each of those with the town’s washed out whites and yellows, further delineates the visual emphasis. Though the characters all speak and understand some English, the language barrier remains a considerable impediment, forcing them to look for other means of communication. Moments of quiet, nonverbal understanding abound, and music, particularly that of Chet Baker, further serves to bridge the cultural gap. The spontaneous, cross cultural dinner table rendition of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” holds more metaphoric weight and emotional power than one might expect it to.

This is a special work, in which the nondescript, dust strewn desert town, complete with its small restaurant, tired apartments and empty streets, becomes the facilitator of an important, life changing series of encounters. It is, Kolirin suggests, in places like this one, in which the concerns of modernity seem less pronounced and fears dictated by societal convention seem to mean less, that it becomes possible to connect with even the most unlikely of others on such an elemental level. Thus, without beating his audience over the head, Kolirin not only presents a positive and meaningful plea for peace, he believably outlines the conditions that might allow it to happen. The Band’s Visit is unabashedly optimistic without seeming fanciful in its formulations, an essential document of hope and understanding.

© 2007 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.

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