Israeli film is sweet, affecting slice of life

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Israeli writer-director Eran Kolirin’s award-winning film, The Band’s Visit , about the visit of an Egyptian police orchestra band to perform in an Israeli town proves not only his talents and sensitivity as a young filmmaker working with a terrific cast, but is moving testimony to the truth that there is much more to life in Israel than terrorist attacks, retaliation, international peace conferences or even Jerusalem’s holy places.

The story moves at a post-modernist, leisurely pace, which is a welcome relief from the hyperkinetic, jerky action of such films as The Bourne Ultimatum. We first glimpse the eight members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, dressed in the snappy, but oddly sky blue police uniforms, arriving at Ben-Gurion International Airport, moving through the halls, pulling their encased band instruments behind them. The stoic, sad-faced conductor, Lieutenant Colonel Tewfiq Zacharya, splendidly portrayed by the Palestinian actor Sasson Gabai, takes his responsibilities almost too seriously, giving him an unintended comedic aspect.

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Diane Carson, professor of film studies and film production at the St. Louis Community College at Meramec, praised Kolirin’s film at a special screening at the Key Sunday Cinema Club at the Landmark Plaza Cinema, comparing its delicate comic touches to the sight gags of classic silent films of yesteryear. Indeed, when the band first descends the escalator at the airport, they pose solemnly for a photograph. While they stand stiffly to look their best, a maintenance worker shuffles into the frame to replace the plastic liner in a trash cannister.

The band is supposed to do a cultural-exchange concert at the Israeli town of Petach Tikva, but because of the similar pronunciation of the names, they board a bus for Beit Hatikva, described as “a desolate, almost forgotten, small Israeli town, somewhere in the heart of the desert.” The director’s notes describes their situation as resulting from “bureacracy, bad luck or for whatever reason,” noting that they become “a lost band in a lost town.”

There is some sweet irony in the fact that a group of Egyptians end up “wandering” in an Israeli desert and end up in a town, Beit Hatikva, which is Hebrew for “House of Hope.” Israel’s national anthem is titled Hatikva, which means “Hope,” implying that the small encounter between the Egyptian band players and the Israeli townspeople, which is quiet, sweet, affecting, sad and humorous by turns provides a small glimmer of hope that some day there might be a “real peace” not just formally between the governments, but informally between and among people.

The Band’s Visit is Eran Kolirin’s first feature film, and it has already won an impressive number of Israeli Academy Awards, including Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Director. Born in 1973, Kolirin’s first work for cinema was the screeplay for the film Zur-Hadassim, for which he won the Lipper Prize for best script at the Jerusalem International Film Festival in 1999. In his Director’s Statement, Kolirin says that he first became drawn to his subject by watching Arab films on Israel’s original single TV station back in the early 1980s.

“In the late afternoon on Fridays, we’d watch with bated breaths the convoluted plots, the impossible loves and the heart-breaking pain of Omar Sharif, Pathen Hamama, Idel Imam, and the rest of that crew on the one and only TV channel that the country had. This was kind of weird, actually, for a country that spent half of its existence in a state of war with Egypt, and the other half in a sort of cold peace with its neighbor to the south.”

The Band’s Visit contains several elements in common with Kolirin’s nostalgia for those old romantic Egyptian films. When the band members forelornly present themselves at the small cafe outside the Israeli town and ask where the Arab Cultural Center is, the earthy Israeli woman, Dina (Ronit Elkabetz in a stunningly believable performance) replies, “No Arab culture, no Israeli culture, no culture at all.” With just those few lines, Dina not only describes the comically bleak dilemma of the band, but also introduces herself as a vivacious, senuous, thoroughly liberated Israeli woman who is trapped in the boring backwater of Beit Hatikva, and who seems immediately eager to welcome the lost band members as guests of the town.

The personalities of the other seven band members led by Tarfiq quickly emerge. Khaled (Saleh Bakri) is aware of just how young, limber and handsome he is, and his roving eye begins to work the moment he spots pretty young women at the airport. His eye is also drawn to the sexy, flirtatious Dina, but she has her own eye on Tewfiq, who seems to be hiding some hurtful experiences beneath his dutiful, expressionless demeanor. There is also Simon, the assistant band leader and frustrated clarinet player and composer.

Dina, a lively and social-minded, lonely woman trapped in the middle of the desert, eagerly welcomes her visitors into her “tent,” first symbolized by the small falafel stand, and then by arranging for the band members to be put up for the night until they can arrange for transportation to their intended destination the next day.

An awkward inner table scene stumbles into an unintended icebreaker when one of the band members begins to sing Summertime from Gershwin’s classic show Porgy and Bess. We are treated to the sight of the Egyptian band members, still in their well-pressed uniforms, joining in song with their Israeli hosts a song written by an American Jewish composer about an African-American town. The many sweet moments like this in the film never seem forced or contrived; they just unfold when you least expect something spontaneous to occur.

Anthony Lane, in The New Yorker, describes Dina as “the punchiest female role that you will stumble on this year,” adding that “it’s a perfect fit for Ronit Elkabetz,” adding that Dina “cuts into a watermelon as if she were demonstrating the murder of Julius Caesar.”

Meanwhile, the seductive Khaled accompanies the shy Israeli named Papi (Shlomi Avraham) to a roller skating rink near the town. In the best scene in the film, Khaled, experienced in the ways of flirtation and serial courtship sits next to Papi, who in turn is sitting next to his shy skating date for the evening who is still upset at Papi’s refusal to join him on the skating rink floor. Khaled takes Papi’s hand to illustrate what Papi must do. Papi ends up with his hand on the young woman’s knee, offering her a Kleenex and giving her a soft kiss, all as a result of Khaled’s skilled and silent choreography.

In the long talks between and among the Egyptian and Israeli characters, we learn much more about Dina and Tewfiq’s past, their regrets and their as yet unfulfilled hopes. While they are together, hope, hatikva is raised that better things are in store for them if only they open themselves up to the possibility that they can help make things better through action and reaching out to others, even through language, ethnic and other barriers. Dina asks Tewfiq to say something in Arabic so she can just “hear the music.”

The Band’s Visit indeed makes beautiful music as it tells a quiet story about an obscure event that few people in Egypt or Israel even remember. “Not many people remember this. It wasn’t that important,” the director says. And yet for those who experienced it, The Band’s Visit was not only important, it was transformative.

( The Band’s Visit opens locally at Landmark Cinemas on Feb. 29).

Published Feb. 13, 2008

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