Ah, understatement. Perhaps one of the most difficult comedy nuances to capture but, when it’s done right, there are riches in store. To be honest, I sensed a discovery upon first reading the tagline to The Band’s Visit (2007), by former TV director Eran Kolirin, who also wrote the screenplay. And I quote: ‘Once – not long ago – a small Egyptian police band arrived in Israel. Not many remember this…it wasn’t that important.’
Rarely is the tone and joy of a film captured in an ad blurb but, as the film’s quiet charm began to take hold, it quickly became apparent that this was an exception to the rule, in all kinds of ways.
Egyptian band The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arrives in Israel for a cultural event, to find no delegation awaiting them at the airport. Led by the stuffy, stiff-upper lipped but charismatic and charming Lieutenant-Colonel Tawfiq Zacharya (Sasson Gabai), who has a particularly vexed relationship with young Lothario band member Haled (Saleh Bakri), they attempt to get to their destination town of Petah Tiqva under their own steam. Unfortunately, Haled is charged with the responsibility of sorting out the transport, and the band takes the wrong bus, arriving instead at the remote dust-bowl of Beit Hatikva.
Stranded until the following morning in full uniform and with instruments in tow, pity is taken on them by sexy, worldly restaurant owner Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), who offers (along with the help of one of her customers) to put them up for the night. Each of the band members has special, personal discoveries ahead – and it’s Tawfiq who accompanies M’Lady for a night out that neither will forget.
Winner of the European Film Awards for European Discovery of the Year (Eran Kolirin) and Best Actor (Sasson Gabai) in 2007 (among many other gongs), what makes the film work so well is its evocation of the simple frustrations and sadness but also joy and human warmth that make up life, anybody’s life.
While obvious (and very funny) character idiosyncracies are on display, Kolirin does not resort to caricature to get his point across – Gabai as Tawfiq, for example,is obviously a man with more going on than meets the eye, but the revelation as to his inner pain is handled with such tenderness and sweetness, without hackneyed excess, that hard will be the heart not moved. Dina (an excellent performance from Elkabetz) tries her very best to bring Tawfiq out of himself – and to a certain extent, she succeeds. But the show must go on…
Check out the picture used to illustrate this review – it won’t mean much to the uninitiated (that’s the Haled character on the right, by the way) but you can have it with authority that the scene in question is one of the funniest (and understated, appropriately enough) cinema moments that you’re likely to see, period.
A downside? Yes, it’s too short. Not because it isn’t perfectly formed, but because you’ll come to care so much for all the characters, and so quickly, that you won’t want to wave them goodbye.
87 mins. In English, Arabic, Hebrew.