Ever since I finally managed to watch the highly contentious Israeli smash “The Band’s Visit by the end of last year, I became eager to lay down my thoughts on our pick of the most controversial film of 2007. But the escalating tension between Israel and Palestine that accumulated with the Gaza blockage deferred my review for some time.
The subsequent violent exchanges between the two sides, would have rendered a review of the film somewhat inappropriate and possibly insensitive.
But as I readied to throw the towel in, I watched the film a couple more times. By the third viewing, all the political and ideological baggage the film tackles so subtly and tastefully seemed irrelevant to the core of a story that would’ve still made a truly great work regardless of the setting or nationality of it characters.
“The Band’s Visit premiered in Cannes last year to unanimous rapturous reviews. Egyptians became acquainted with the film when the numerous Arabic publications announced that the first Middle-East Film Festival held at Abu Dahbi, had decided to include the film among its selection. Further false claims regarding the film’s participation at the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) sparked a storm of assault against the selection committee.
Reports claimed that the Abu Dhabi festival committee banned the film after the Egyptian Actors’ Association threatened to boycott the festival if the film was screened. CIFF President Ezzat Abou Ouf affirmed the no Israeli film shall participate in the festival as long as he remains president, while members of the festival committee declared that they’d never seen the film.
Like any Israeli production, “The Band’s Visit remains banned in Egypt. Not even the most vocal advocates of freedom of expression, or those who encourage a separation between arts and politics, dared to call for its release.
“The Band’s Visit opens with a wide shot of a stark white van stopping and swiftly leaving to reveal a group of men dressed in powder-blue uniforms that closely resemble a toned-down version of military outfits. They stand in complete silence, staring at the barren horizon, waiting for any recognizable faces to spot them.
“Once, not long ago, a small Egyptian police band arrived in Israel, a black screen announces. “Not many remember this, it was not that important.
The said band is the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra. They were sent to Israel to perform at the inauguration of the Arab Culture Center. Whoever was supposed to receive them didn’t show up, and the band find themselves lost in a strange land, the land of their old archenemy.
With no clear directions to read, the band takes the wrong bus and instead of Petah Tikva, they end up in the almost deserted town of Bet Hatikva, a place with “no Arab culture, no Israeli culture, no culture at all.
Colonel Tawfiq Zacharya (Sasson Gabai), the band leader, is a stoic, courteous, highly reserved man. His eyes reveal a deep-seated sadness. His right-hand man, Simon (Khalifa Natour), has been trailing behind his boss’s shadow for far too long now. He started composing a concerto ages ago when he first enrolled into the band, but never managed to finish it.
Khaled (Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri) is the young new kid on the block. Cocky, handsome and a troublemaker, Khaled is the archetypal bad boy Egyptian films like “A Girl from Israel would instantly vilify. Yet even he cloaks layers of confusion that are gradually peeled off.
The band, lost in the middle of nowhere, meet a restaurant owner named Dina (Ronit Elkabetz from “Late Marriage ), a crusty, swaggering woman with the kind of savage beauty men find impossible to resist. When Tawfiq discovers they’ve just missed the last bus to Petah Tikva, the resilient bandleader decides to accept Dina’s offer and spend the night at her place, while the rest of the band are lodged by a couple of her unwilling friends and neighbors.
Both band members, and the Israelis they meet, are clearly skeptical of each other. One of them glances in horror at a photo of an Israeli battalion in combat in Dina’s restaurant before covering it with his cap.
Tawfiq constantly tries to remind his men of the grave sensitivity of their mission. “We’re representing Egypt. We need to prove to whoever needs proof what we are made of, he tells them after a young hoodlum ridicules his outfit.
At dinner, the disgruntled wife of Dina’s friend rants at one of the Egyptians for wiping his glass. There’s lucid hostility between the band members and their hosts, too many unspoken emotions that are occasionally let loose with a gesture, a glance or a word.
The tension doesn’t disappear; it simply takes a backseat to the characters’ ordinary troubles: their disappointments, regrets, failures and devouring sense of loneliness.
Dina’s brief rapport with Tawfiq is the heart of the movie. For Dina, Tawfiq is the kind of person you accidently meet, hoping he’ll lift you from the doldrums of your static life. She’s certain that this relationship wouldn’t advance beyond that one memorable night, yet she’s too vulnerable, too lonely to dismiss it.
She recalls watching Egyptian melodramas by Omar Sharif and Faten Hamama every Friday afternoon, along with the rest of country. “We were all in love with Omar Sharif; we were all in love with love, big love in big Arabic words, ya habibi, ya Omri.
This life, this sense of possibility, of innocent joy, doesn’t exist any longer.
Tawfiq is no different. He’s a widower who didn’t grasp the bliss he had until he lost it all. His band is facing serious financial problems, and this show might be their last – the Arabic title of the film is “Al Ard Al Akheer (The Last Show). There is no future for Dina and Tawfiq, just the faint promise of a long conversation and handful of memories.
The Band’s Visit is writer/director Eran Kolirin’s cinematic debut. Kolirin treats his characters and tricky subject matter with remarkable delicacy and understanding. Nearly every element of his film is accurately designed and calculated from his color scheme that contrasts the flat blues of Tawfiq’s uniform to Dina’s fiery red dress, to the bare set where the smallest of infiltrating actions seems to intrude on an otherwise indifferent, still milieu.
The comedy, in particular, is a masterstroke of genius. The bulk of the comedy is based on the misunderstandings, awkwardness and the eventual guard-dropping between the band members and the Bet Hatikva denizens. The most amusing, nearly side-splitting part of the film occurs near the end when Khaled helps Dina’s clumsy young neighbor Papi get his “gloomy object of affection.
The film never comes off as preachy; the brilliance of the film is that it totally avoids making any statements. Kolirin loves his characters with all their faults and misgivings. The sense of innate hope seeping gently from Kolirin’s frames is neither imposed nor contrived.
Usual pundits might regard Kolirin’s story as an attempt to seek some kind of reconciliation between the two sides, I didn’t feel that and I honestly didn’t care. Kolirin’s story is so engaging, so beautifully realized, and so genuine it deems the so-called political subtext irrelevant, and that’s the key factor supporting the film’s massive success in the US and Europe.
“The Band’s Visit is a little masterpiece with a big brain and bigger heart. It’s a largely apolitical film about particular encounters between particular characters, in a particular place. It’s also a film that celebrates Egyptian culture, and the obscure Egyptian classics that fill the film’s soundtrack are simply divine. In fact, “The Band’s Visit will compel you to value this cultural heritage we continuously take for granted, more than other cotemporary Egyptian films.
The film is like a sweet reverie. It doesn’t propagate normalization as some critics, who have incidentally never seen the film, might suggest.
The Band s Visit will be available on DVD next month in the US and across the world. Buy a copy, watch it, and then pass judgment.