Judging from pure box-office numbers, most Americans aren’t interested in foreign and art films. More often than not, I find that a disappointing shame. But once in a while, as with The Band’s Visit, I can sympathize with the median American.
Powder Blue Colorfulness
PG-13 for brief strong language
The Band’s Visit does everything right. It’s a cultural slice-of-life with a lot of heart. There are likeable characters who speak another language, and yet whose humanity shows us that we are all part of the same family.
Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai) is the leader of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra. Dressed in powder-blue martial outfits, these Egyptian Arabs arrive in Israel to play at the opening ceremony of a new cultural center. A tongue-twisting place name throws off Khaled (Saleh Bakri) their young buck of a navigator, and they end up spending a day and a night in the wrong small town. They partake of the local hospitality (like it or not), offered by the woman who runs the lunch counter and her two unemployed regular customers.
There are about six primary characters, each distinct and colorful enough to be in a movie like this. Those with less colorfulness get a sad story to tell.
By the end you feel uplifted and, to borrow a sentiment from fellow critic Walter Chaw, you get to pat yourself on the back for appreciating a foreign film. The Band’s Visit is complicit in this charade by being bland and unchallenging, sunny and likeable.
The invasion of Israel by uniformed Arab police is a provocative setup. That they are the poets and musicians rather than the generals opens lots of avenues for a discussion. Their own organization — the Alexandria police — wants to defund and reassign them because music is a luxury in a martial organization. And if they are (metaphorically) invaders, it’s interesting that they are completely helpless without cooperation from their hosts.
But the movie doesn’t capitalize on any of these angles. The best it can muster (it’s actually a very good scene) is the awkward, forced hospitality of an Israeli family who take in three of the lost musicians for the night. They use the language barrier to hide their insincerity. The woman of the house asks — in Hebrew, which she knows her guests can’t understand — why these Egyptian jerks aren’t more grateful for her hospitality.
Perhaps writer/director Eran Kolirin would say that his movie already has all of these ideas, and that I discovered them. But I feel more like I’m grasping at straws than grokking the film’s deep and deliberate message.
The Writing on the Screen
Subtlety aside, the movie feels contrived in two of the storylines. The worst is the case of the clarinetist who has an unfinished concerto; his new Israeli friend has an unfinished marriage. The friend suggests that maybe a concerto doesn’t have to have a traditional ending; maybe it can just trail off. The moment is given cinematic weight, as though Kolirin thinks it is deep or important, but it rings false in my ears and sounds more like a metaphor (and excuse) for writers’ block.
And Tewfiq spends most of his screen time in the company of the proprietress Dina (Ronit Elkabetz). Their time alone together suggests that there is some sort of sexual tension. And indeed, according to the script, there is. But rather than the chemistry feeling natural, it feels like a movie formula: man plus woman minus sidekicks equals sexual tension. It’s not that the actors can’t carry it off — they do sell their chemistry very well. But what we learn about Tewfiq, eventually, is that he really is too old to feel that sort of sentiment. And what we learn about Dina is that Tewfiq isn’t necessarily her type anyway. So it seems false that these two people would ever begin any chemistry, much less bring it to a simmering boil.
On the other hand, The Band’s Visit really is sunny and likeable. Fans of the movie might say I’m not taking the movie on its own terms, and they’d be partially right. The movie doesn’t want to have complex themes, so a critique that says it could have done more misses the point. The characters are broad enough to be in a light comedy, so a critique that they are too easily caught in romance also misses the point.
But if a movie is just going to be a feather-light comedy with a little romance (and no politics and no deep character study), then you might as well stick with Hollywood fare.
The median American has already figured this out.