Visiting Israel to play at the opening of an Arab Cultural Center, Egypt’s Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra mistakenly winds up in a desolate, middle-of-nowhere town in The Band’s Visit. Led by their stern conductor General Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai), the aimless band receives assistance in the person of Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), the proprietor of a small café who graciously finds them room and board for the night. What follows is a series of superficially minor events: Dina and Tewfiq spend the evening having dinner together and chatting; ladies man Khaled (Saleh Bakri) tags along on a roller-disco double-date and coaches nervous Papi (Shlomi Avraham) in the ways of love with a “grumpy” girl; and Tewfiq’s right-hand man Simon (Khalifa Natour), along with others, awkwardly intrudes upon the birthday dinner of Itzik’s (Rubi Moscovich) wife. Yet while nothing major seems to take place, what’s experienced by all of these people is monumental, as writer-director Eran Kolirin, in his debut feature, exhibits a magnificently deft touch in casting each of these encounters as a case study in cross-cultural communion.
Miscommunication is a constant verbal/visual motif, from Khaled’s attempts to obtain directions at the airport from an Israeli woman behind a glass partition, to the way in which these Egyptians and Israelis converse via English but retain their native tongues for confidential exchanges. Kolirin’s empathy for his characters runs deep, and his film remains intensely focused on their conflicted feelings, most piercingly with regard to Tewfiq and Dina, two middle-aged souls who, like everyone else in this tale, may be separated by cultural/political/geographic barriers, but are conjoined by that most universal of conditions: loneliness. The superb Gabai brings a dignity to the downtrodden Tewfiq that never crosses into mawkishness. It’s the transfixing Elkabetz, though, who truly dominates the proceedings, her Dina admirably unapologetic about seeking pleasure wherever she might find it (whether it be with a married man or a stranger on a city bench), and yet infused with a sorrow and desperation that’s embedded, part scar and part badge of honor, in the lines of her face.
Kolirin allows Dina and Tewfiq’s relationship to gently blossom, and their unhappy pasts to slowly be revealed, in a manner free of manipulative melodramatics. Furthermore, his script’s intermittent, wry humor is perfectly pitched to break up the omnipresent air of forlorn yearning. That a Wes Anderson/Jared Hess stylistic quirkiness can be felt in a few symmetrical compositions of the troupe standing shoulder-to-shoulder in their out-of-place crisp blue uniforms, as well as in a couple of manicured comedic shots at the roller-disco, would be off-putting if not for the fact that Kolirin shows more mature affection and generosity for his misfits, as well as more directorial subtlety and grace, than either of those celebrated American filmmakers. And as each mini-narrative invariably moves from a state of uncomfortable separation to one of unspoken but undeniable spiritual/emotional togetherness, what Kolirin achieves is—given our current hit-you-over-the-head cinematic climate—just about remarkable: a tender, poignant allegory for Arab-Israeli tensions that never makes a single overt gesture toward articulating its larger concerns.