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REVIEW: The Band's Visit

By Philip Martin

This article was published April 4, 2008 at 2:37 a.m.

tawfiq-sasson-gabai-is-an-egyptian-whose-welfare-is-in-the-hands-of-dina-ronit-elkabetz-while-hes-in-israel-in-the-bands-visit

Tawfiq (Sasson Gabai) is an Egyptian whose welfare is in the hands of Dina (Ronit Elkabetz) while he's in Israel in The Band's Visit.

— A little film based on a short newspaper account of a real incident, Israeli director Eran Kolirin's debut The Band's Visit is so satisfying that it might be better not to talk too much about its poetic cinematography and precisely calibrated palette - the Carolina blue uniforms of the titular band's members, the hammering white of the Sinai, the industrial dun of the nowhere town where the hapless brigade winds up. While the colors are hardly the point of this droll fish-out-of-water comedy, they're probably the strongest evidence of the film's extraordinarily intelligent design.

Art films aren't usually this flat-out enjoyable and acces-sible; The Band's Visit is so delicious it's hard to believe it might actually contain some nutritional value. But Kolirin is at least as much an artist as an entertainer, and there's hardly a moment in this delightful movie that doesn't ring with authentic human feeling.

The film's premise is basic. The members of the Egyptian Alexandria Municipal Police Ceremonial Orchestra are on their way to play at an Arab cultural center in the Israeli city of Petah Tikva. But no one is there to meet them at the Tel Aviv airport when they arrive. Temporarily disconcerted, their leader Tawfiq (played by Israeli actor Sasson Gabai) decides they'll take the bus. There are no signs in Arabic, so he orders the band's young violinist/trumpet player Khaled (Saleh Bakri) to find out which bus they need.

Though Khaled protests that his English - the lingua franca of the Israelis and their Arab neighbors - isn't so good, Tawfiq suspects him of slacking and makes his request an order. Soon handsome Khaled - who bears a resemblance to a young Engelbert Humperdinck (the pop singer, not the German opera composer) - is serenading the young woman behind the counter. And soon they're all on their way to the dusty village of Bet Hativka. Where there's no Arab cultural center. Or, in the words of bemused cafe proprietor Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), "no culture of any kind."

And no hotel either.

The boys in blue aren't completely out of luck; Dina has the will and the means to help them out. She finds rooms for them for the evening and takes courtly Tawfiq and louche Khaled back to her place, in part perhaps for theminor thrill of scandalizing her neighbors.

She takes a shine to Tawfiq, whom she parades around the little town like a new pet. Meanwhile, Khaled invites himself along on a shy Israeli man's first date with the doleful cousin of a friend's girlfriend, eventually making himself useful.

We might make assumptions about the tension that might develop if a group of Egyptian police officers were stranded in an Israeli settlement. Kolirin's more universal subject is the inadequacy - and ultimately, the irrelevance - of language. Most of the time the characters are communicating in English - a language in which none of them are completely fluent. Yet they are able to make themselves understood through gestures and music and, most of all, facial expressions.

Kolirin and cinematographer Shai Goldman use the faces of their actors as canvases and subtly make a case for the commonality of the human spirit as a more important signifier than racial or national identification. While never steering into sentimentality- it comes close - The Band's Visit manages to provide a solid reason for optimism. It's not by accident that the town's name - Bet Hativka - may be translated as "place of hope."

MovieStyle, Pages 37, 40 on 04/04/2008

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