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Guest Appearances 

You may have heard some gripes a few weeks ago about how the American Academy Awards goes about collecting nominees for Best Foreign Film. Writer/director Eran Kolirin's The Band's Visit was frequently cited as a prime example of how Oscar is obviously getting it wrong. The Band's Visit won eight trophies from the Israeli Film Academy (including Best Film) and went on to capture the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. But the film was not nominated for an American Oscar. A shame, obviously. The Band's Visit is simple and quiet but affecting and deeply pleasing. It's a bit of a comedy, a bit of a romance and a penetrating beacon of hope. It's the light side of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Babel. The Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra has been invited to play at the Arab Cultural Center in a small Israeli town. We meet the eight musicians as they emerge from a maze of checkpoints that leads from Egypt to Israel. They wear finely appointed powder-blue uniforms and have their instruments in tow. But they aren't met at the border as they expect to be, and they make their first mistake when their conductor, Lt. Col. Tawfiq Zakarya (Sasson Gabai), decides that they will simply take the bus. It remains entirely possible that their transportation would have caught up with them if they had simply waited. But Tawfiq is a decisive leader, often to his own detriment. (Sounds like others we might name, no?)

The Egyptians can speak no Hebrew, and the Israelis can't understand Arabic, so everybody tries to communicate in English " a gentle symbol that leads to much confusion. The Israelis at the bus station are genuinely trying to help, but the Egyptians end up in a phonetic approximation of the town they are seeking. They disembark at a dusty desert hamlet that has no Arab Cultural Center, nor even, as one of the residents remarks, any culture whatsoever. Alas, the next bus to the right place won't depart until the following day, and the Egyptians are mightily stuck. There's not even a hotel available for them to spend the night.

When the owner of the local café, a droll beauty named Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), discovers the Egyptians' plight, she steps forward to help. She'll provide a night's shelter for Tawfiq and one other band member, and with the authority of her will alone, she directs that several of her regular patrons take responsibility for the other marooned musicians. What follows is a series of character sketches that emerge as the Egyptians and Israelis interact. The revelations that transpire are minimalist but telling and memorable in a way that the great short-story writer Raymond Carver would applaud.

Simon (Khalifa Natour), the band's second-in-command, is also the backup conductor, though Tawfiq never actually lets him take the baton. Like most all the characters in the film, he's a lonely, stymied man whose modest ambitions have usually met with defeat. At the home of his hosts, he plays a sonata he's written for clarinet. It isn't finished, and he's mildly embarrassed that he's never found the inspiration or determination to complete the piece. The Israelis, though, are very impressed that he's attempted such a creation in the first place and provide him bracing encouragement.

Haled (Saleh Bakri) plays both violin and trumpet. He's the youngest member of the band and at times an irritating wiseacre. Tawfiq, who is foremost concerned with discipline and decorum, is at regular pains to make sure that Haled doesn't embarrass them. Haled doesn't lack self-confidence, much of it unwarranted, but we ultimately discover that he isn't a jerk. He regularly brags about his prowess with women, and though we doubt the details of his conquests, we see his vastly better side when he gives romantic instructions to his Israeli host, Papi (Shlomi Avraham), who hasn't the first clue how to court a woman. Their trip to a local skating rink provides the film's funniest moments.

The picture's best scenes, though, are those between Dina and Tawfiq. Dina reaches out to Tawfiq in a way that's not quite rational but in the hands of these two very gifted actors becomes entirely believable. Though not the kind we expect, they make a connection by telling each other private truths. Ostensibly enemies in a hostile land, they so easily recognize their common humanity that we are provoked to contemplate, without the film raising a single political issue, how much governments and demagogues and ideologies foment resentments that everyday people would readily set aside. Not true, perhaps, but worth believing in all the same.

click to enlarge Members of a stranded Egyptian band are taken in as guests in a small Israeli town in The Band's Visit. - SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
  • Sony Pictures Classics
  • Members of a stranded Egyptian band are taken in as guests in a small Israeli town in The Band's Visit.
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