By Matt Singer
“The Band’s Visit” is an antidote to the more common treatment of racial and ethnic difference on screen, which is typically characterized by tragic miscommunication and huge conflicts of monumental importance. (Think “Babel.”) Instead, the focus of Eran Kolirin’s feature debut is squarely on humanity’s potential to overcome those sorts of roadblocks and find a common ground. The result is intentionally light, maybe even a little slight, but also unquestionably warm and charming.
An Egyptian police band, led by stern conductor Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai), arrives in Israel to play a special concert at the opening of an Arab Culture Center in Beit Hatikva. Problem is, there is no Arab Culture Center in Beit Hatikva where the band hears Beit Hatikva, they should have heard Petah Tikva and there’s no chance of transportation out of the desolate little desert town until the next morning. The proprietor of a local café, named Diana (Ronit Elkabetz), takes a few of the members in and encourages her friends to do the same. The film follows the events of the night with amusement, sympathy and hope.
A lot has been made of “The Band’s Visit”‘s disqualification from contention for the Oscar for best foreign language film on a technicality; because the Egyptians and the Israelis do not understand each other, they communicate by speaking English (which is spoken far too often in the Academy’s purview to merit Oscar consideration). But even if the Academy had permitted director Kolirin’s film to compete in the category, it would have made a bad fit for the award, where specific nations each submit a single film for consideration, a notion that encourages divisiveness and international competition. Though “The Band’s Visit” is an Israeli film, it suggests a community built beyond that country or any country’s borders, and it’s pretty hard to imagine this charming little film or its creators engaging in a cutthroat campaign all for the sake of a little golden statue.
One seemingly superficial aspect of the film bears a great deal of importance. Though most of the dialogue is in English, the entire film is subtitled, allowing English speaking audiences to understand not only the dialogue between the Egyptians and the Israelis, but the words exchanged within each group as well. But the entire plot is centered around the idea that neither faction can fully express themselves to one another; and several crucial moments play upon the fact that when one side needs to share privileged information with others, they revert from English to their first language. Hypothetically, Kolirin could have printed the film unsubtitled; the dialogue, particularly in Arabic and Hebrew, is sparse enough that everything would have been clear without them. Or he could have subtitled one group or the other. Instead, he gave the audience more information than any character onscreen, allowing viewers to stand outside the automatic distrust that a language barrier breeds and feel as if they are one of the Egyptians and the Israelis.
A pre-credits crawl informs us that the film is loosely based on a real life incident. “Not many remember this,” it says, “it was not that important.” It sounds like a pretty soft sell for a movie, but “The Band’s Visit” boils down to that very fact. It wasn’t a very eventful visit. To Kolirin, that, in and of itself, made it something of an event.
[Photo: “The Band’s Visit,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2007]