Cast: Sasson Gabai, Ronit Elkabetz, Saleh Bakri
Director: Eran Kolirin
Language: English, Arabic, Hebrew
Runtime: 87 min.
Genre: Comedy, Drama
In the heart of this simplest and gentlest of tales lay music in its purest form. It is at once royal and humble, and it plays out like a series of tender notes, created straight out of the loneliness of its heart. The Band’s Visit isn’t a musical in the traditional sense, in that there aren’t any extravagant songs to speak of. But I’m tempted, more than any film in recent memory, to call it a true tribute to music because of the richness of its heart, and it’s almost simpleton honesty. Its rhythms flow softly and smoothly to us, something akin to the sight of a tiny fish hustling in the serenity of the deepest ocean. Truth is the word that comes to mind for some unknown reason.
Back in 67, if one were to venture into the Sinai, the temperature might have shown a reading markedly higher than normal. That would remain the status quo for a considerable period of the ensuing years. Though politics have changed, and certain leaders seemed to have warmed up, I’m certain there exists a certain degree of friction. On its face, The Band’s Visit might appear to be particular to Israel and Egypt, and I believe looking at it in that context alone would be an oversight of cruel proportions. Cast aside all those prerequisites, and discover a film about the interaction of people, good people, warm people, common people, you and me, who merely happen to be from different parts of the world.
Nobody pays respect anymore to the Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra of, Egypt and nobody deems their classical music worthy enough. Headed by Tawfiq (Gabai, Rambo III), and desperate to prove their efficiency and value, The Band land into Israel seeking the Arab culture centre, dressed in their sky-blue uniforms exponentially adding to their apparent importance. They’re supposed to be, or they at least expect to be ceremonially welcomed and driven to their destination. The reality on the ground couldn’t be more different, and nobody seems to care even wee bit about them. By nobody, I mean the concerned authorities. The common people around at the airport seem to take great interest in the sight of them though, and some of them intend to have their picture taken. When the wait gets to their nerves, they inquire at the information center for a bus to take them to Petah Tikvah. Middle of nowhere, with few buildings if anything and a lost of dust and wind blowing around, is where the bus drops them. And a cafeteria in sight with a handsome woman incharge. They have breakfast, and when they explain their situation, they learn that the next bus would be coming the next morning.
It is a great sight, the woman, her name Dina (Elkabetz) and Tawfiq, to whom she refers to as the General, converse with each other. Especially the brand of English they utter. Every facet of him speaks of measured pride and discipline, and his every word weighed carefully before letting it heard by the outside world, lest someone would think low of their culture. She speaks casually, with gay abandon, and a confidence of a person who has the rein of her life in her own hands. Nothing else matters to her much, it seems, and neither to the two men who have been sitting there sharing her amusement and surprise that these thorough gentlemen evoke. As she replies in what is a beautiful line, complete with its sardonic observation to his question about the location of the Arab culture center – “No culture. Not Israeli culture, not Arab, no culture at all.”
She proposes to them to stay for the night, the other two Israeli citizens sharing her burden. One has a birthday at his house, and other intends to go out for a date, but on her insistence they help. Over the night, the film brings out a whole lot of a spontaneous mixture of comic encounters and tender emotional revelations. A night of lives being shared. There’s a wonderfully witty sequence, reminding me of Chaplin’s films, where the young and romantic Khaled (Saleh) helps his host reach out and grab the seeking hand of love. And there’s a sequence on a solitary bench, in the middle of an imaginary park, that involves veils being dropped and loneliness being disclosed. Not with a shouting desperation, but subtly and probably unknowingly. The sight of a good person warms up your heart in many ways, and it doesn’t matter if he’s a stranger from a far off land, it still opens up to a smooth flow you might never believe. Especially when it has great isolation buried inside of it.
This is Kolirin first feature film, and it is astonishing to view the mastery on hand. He seems to almost always know how to compose a shot. Make that always. We view the characters interact from always the precise location, and not even once are we disturbed by an unnecessary edit or movement. The night transpires with languid grace. It is an accepted rule, that the longer a sequence the more emotionally involved we become. Every sequence is just about the perfect length, and as it passes by we feel richer having shared a slice of life. Perfect is the word that comes to mind.
His economical approach lend great generosity upon the actors and each of them, even the ones with the tiniest parts leave an impression. The interaction between Simon and his host is so heartfelt, and there’s something so deeply profound and alive about their view on his long unfinished concerto. There’s Sasson Gabai, whose every wrinkle seems earned, and deserving of respect. An elder, isolated and lonely, and hoping for a companion. It is a wonder how the same feelings echo in Elkabetz’s eyes too, yet in a manner more desperate. Maybe she has broken the shackles of her culture, and language, the twins that separate us. Salman Rushdie, in his magical new novel The Enchantress of Florence has Mogor dell’Amore, the bearer of a great secret tale, declare – “This may be the curse of the human race. Not that we’re so different from one another, but that we’re so alike.” On the contrary, I think it is one of our great blessings.
When the band finally plays its song, it felt like I missed a beat. Something swelled inside my heart, maybe a glow of happiness. It was the realization of their insistence to spread music, and it touched me so gently I felt the warmth of elation flow out of me like never before. I closed my eyes for a fleeting moment to cherish this film. A film of the rarest beauty and elegance. A film so poignantly insightful of the strangeness of the bonds that flow between us. I guess that is what The Band’s Visit is all about. I guess that is what music is all about. And I wish to cherish it again, and again.
Note: The Band’s Visit was Israel official entry for the Oscars last year, but the Academy ruled against it citing that more than half of the language was in English thus rendering it ineligible for the Foreign Language category. As a result Beaufort was sent. I’m not qualified enough to argue for or against this judgment, but I wouldn’t hesitate one bit in opining that The Band’s Visit is one of the finest films in any language of last or any year.