Stranded in the Israeli desert, the eight Egyptian members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra look a bit like a joke in search of a punch line. If "The Band's Visit" were any other kind of film -- a little more pat, say, and rather less knowing -- these eight souls might quickly transform into mere props in a small-scale sermon about Middle East man's humanity to Middle East man, minus the politics of course.
"The Band's Visit," the first feature by the Israeli writer and director Eran Kolirin, flirts recklessly with obviousness, cuteness too. This sweet-and-sour comedy opens with the band, which has traveled to Israel to perform at an Arab cultural center, arriving at an airport without a welcoming committee. Dressed in nearly identical uniforms and smart caps, their nut-brown skin working a vivid, chromatic contrast with the robin's-egg blue of their costumes, the men enter the film in silence, immobilized by professional reserve or perhaps just bewilderment. For the orchestra's unsmiling leader, Tewfiq -- the magnificently sober Sasson Gabai -- the initial lack of a welcome will prove to be only the first bump on an increasingly rough and rutted road.
A few phone calls and one bus ride later, the band has arrived in an Israeli town, the wrong Israeli town, having successfully journeyed from forgotten to mislaid. There, amid the dust and the wind, the Egyptians meet a handful of curious (and agonizingly bored) Israelis who, with degrees of easy and grudging hospitality, offer them shelter, food, distraction, engagement, a few nips of booze, some shaky turns around a roller-skating rink and curious, fleeting companionship. Amid the awkward conversations (spoken in lightly halting and fluid English), the even more uncomfortable silences, bits of music and some nicely executed physical comedy, the Egyptians and the Israelis circle one another warily. Love doesn't exactly bloom in this desert, but a sense of unarticulated longing does.
There's something gently comical about the contrast between the Egyptians' gravely masculine faces and the prettiness of those blue costumes, especially when they're lined up like French schoolgirls (or ducklings). Kolirin wrings even more visual humor from this contrast by placing the men in the center of the image and ensuring that they don't move for several beats, which locates them in spatial and existential isolation. It's a facile, familiar movie trick, and Kolirin comes close to wearing it out before the band even leaves the airport, largely because massing the men in this fashion threatens to diminish their individuality. But it's a clever stratagem too, because the comedy eases you into the story and obscures the currents of seriousness swirling under the film's surface.
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Kolirin, it emerges, is wrenching comedy out of intense melancholia. Much of that melancholy involves Tewfiq; the band's roguish violinist, Haled (Saleh Bakri, smooth as glass); and an Israeli restaurant owner, Dina (the great Ronit Elkabetz), a brusque, untamed beauty who offers the two shelter. (The other band members bed down elsewhere.) Over the course of a long, peripatetic evening, these three will unite and separate, fumble and parry. Finally they will reunite in Dina's apartment, where, as they sit wearily around a table, Kolirin will cut from one face to the next in tight close-up. Despite their tentative, sometimes tender exchanges, the three remain essentially alone, an isolation underscored by the shallow depth of field that leaves only their faces in poignant focus.
The terminal loneliness that haunts this scene may be universal, but Kolirin also seems to be saying that a specific loneliness haunts Israel as well.