When the blue-uniformed Egyptian police band 'The Alexandria Ceremonial Orchestra' gets lost in small town Israel on its way to an Arab cultural centre, it sets the scene for personal and ideological differences to be tested and turned around - and the results are both achingly funny and truly life-affirming. "The Band's Visit" has clocked up over 35 International awards and having enjoyed every rather lovely and quirky minute of it, I can easily see why it's captured the hearts of so many.
Tewfiq - the regimental, guarded and awkward 65-year old bandleader - is played with truly stunning restraint by veteran Arab actor SASSON GABAI - who in turns strikes up an unlikely relationship with the town's feisty and vibrant 35-year old café owner Dina - played with relish and gusto by the gorgeous RONIT ELKABETZ - an actress who lights up the screen every second she's on it. This woman has a choker of gold around her ankle and her toenails are painted - any interesting man who comes to her 'dead' town had better watch out. Tewfiq is an interesting man - despite their huge age difference. But he's also the sort of old school gentleman who will open a door for a lady, but won't answer her probing personal questions - even if love 'is' on the cards...
The orchestra of 8 has its youngest member in the womanizing romantic that is Halib - played by the handsome SALEH BAKRI. The scene where he sings "My Funny Valentine" to a pretty receptionist behind a glass protection panel at the airport is both hilarious and touching.
In some respects not a lot happens in "The Band's Visit" - hours pass, backgammon is played, roads lined with thousands of overhanging streetlights stretch out for miles in either direction without a car every bothering the shimmering tarmac. A fork falls on the kitchen floor, someone clips a moustache, a hat is hung over a picture of a tank so as not to offend. But then - against all this boredom and monochrome existence - you're hit with scenes of unexpected tenderness. There's a local lad waiting all night by the town callbox for his girlfriend to call. The shy and awkward band member played superbly by KHALIFA MATOUR sitting on the bed of the family who have offered him overnight accommodation; he's watching their baby boy sleep - when he suddenly gets the notes in his head to finish that concerto for clarinet he's been writing but never sadly finished. His face as he realizes his dream. Or in the local dancehall - where the impossibly awkward and shy lad Papi - who wants an equally awkward and shy girl - is helped by the woman-knowing Halib. It's as funny and as tender as cinema gets - truly fantastic stuff.
Alongside the silences is the other character - Music - and its ability to break down barriers, bring people together, dissipate awkward situations. It features heavily throughout the film and it gives the piece its emotional heart. The father of the family who sings Gershwin's "Summertime" at the dinner table and all the religions join in; the pop music on the radio in the car breaking the silence for the youngsters as they drive through Saturday night; the band practising an Arabic lullaby in the warm evening air outside the town café...
But there's better than that. There are about five scenes with Tewfiq and Dina where their discussions about men and women and marriage and children - are just electrifying - and its easy to see why so many of those International Film Awards were for the screenplay which the Writer/Director ERAN KOLIRIN freely admits took 9 years to perfect. Dina is lonely despite her vivaciousness and Tewfiq has deep hidden pain. When Gabai and Elkabetz are together, they're dialogue and interaction really are something else - both of them rising to the great material. (His discussion about fishing being the most 'important thing in the world' gives this review its title).
If you were to highlight downsides, they'd only be minor niggles - the entire end credits rolling up in front of you are in Arabic and not in English so you can't understand a single word - nor know who did what. And in the Special Features Section - the Photo Gallery pictures many of the actors without telling us Westerners who they are. Sloppy. However, these are countered by a lovely 20-minute "Making Of The Fairy Tale" featurette, which has interviews with the director, the traditional/modern music editor HABIB SHADAD and the principal actors - and is both warm and very illuminating.
With Arabs and Jews, Palestinian and Israeli artists all making this movie together - "The Band's Visit" is Israeli cinema coming of age and something of a cultural milestone. It's about music and love and made with the same. Eran Kolirin has produced a little gem out of all that political mayhem and personal demarcation - and he and his crew should be rightly proud of it.
Like "Caramel" and "The Namesake", this is a foreign film that does not dwell on the extinction of life, but the living of it. I was deeply moved.
Put "Bikur Ha-Tizmoret" or "The Band's Visit" high on your rental/to buy list - highly recommended.