The Band’s Visit is by no means a story of epic proportions. It tells the story of a group of Egyptian musical men stranded for one night in a comically dull Israeli town. These men, bound by their love of music, form the Egyptian police’s Alexandria Ceremonial Orchestra, an enterprise whose weighty title far outshines their actual, minimal importance. Their leader, Tawfiq’s (Sasson Gabai) conduct is as crisp and proper as the starched lines of his immaculate robin’s egg blue uniform. His bearing rivals that of a high ranking military official, prompting those around him to mockingly nickname him “The General.”
How then did such a distinguished individual lead his men to the uneventful streets of Beit Hatikva when they were meant to play at the inaugural ceremony of the Arab Cultural Center in Petah Tiqva? For starters, as an early Egyptian-Israeli exchange shows, the towns sound identical, especially through the lingual confusion experienced by both parties. Also, without this mix-up viewers would have been robbed of the chance to experience this quietly amusing film.
The Band’s Visit is a film that lives in and relishes the silences and awkward pauses that exist between strangers, especially ones that don’t speak the same language. Tawfiq has such a hard time communicating that even the men in his band share a forced camaraderie instead of an easy rapport. Tawfiq rebuffs every offer of hospitality from the people of Beit Hatikva unless desperation forces him to do otherwise. His polite response of “No thank you” quickly becomes a refrain designed to shield him from any kindness or emotional attachment.
The majority of his refusals are directed at Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), an Israeli woman from Beit Hatikva whose wry humor, candid self-assurance, and strong earthy beauty make her one of the film’s highlights. Tawfiq and Dina strike up a tentative friendship when the latter offers her home as one of two places the band members spend the night. The two have dinner at one of the town’s dreary restaurants where Dina attempts to amuse the straight-face Tawfiq with goofy faces and snatches of town gossip. Tawfiq receives her attentions with obvious discomfort that is expertly portrayed by Gabai with subtly and formal grace. Their conversation limps along and finally finds it way to the topic of music, with Dina asking why the police force needs a “ceremonial orchestra.” Tawfiq, struggling to conceal his hurt at such a question, replies that one might as well ask why a man needs a soul. Dina quickly realizes the insensitivity of her comment and asks him to demonstrate the act of conducting. As Tawfiq gravely directs the vacant air with his hands, Dina remarks that it looks like “the most important thing in the world.” Tawfiq replies with the utmost seriousness that that distinction belongs to… fishing.
The lifestyle of Beit Hatikva’s youth is seen through the eyes of Haled (Saleh Bakri) the rebellious young member of the band. Haled hits the town with some locals his own age, only to discover that a run-down roller rink is the pinnacle of Beit Hatikva nightlife. He makes the best of the evening and even manages to give some sorely needed love advice to a bumbling, disheveled Israeli teen. (This poor boy struggled to get away from a girl so vehemently that he actually knocked her to the ground while they were both on roller skates.) After the night is over, the band simply packs up and continues on its way, without any grand gestures or life changing revelations. This realistic conclusion reinforces the film’s modest tone and reach. The Band’s Visit is not a loud, showy film; however, like Tawfiq’s conducting, it succeeds in making the ordinary look like the most important thing in the world.
Weak: 1 Star Average: 2 Stars Good: 3 Stars Very Good: 4 Stars Excellent: 5 Stars