One of the highlights of the recent Santa Barbara International Film Festival, The Band’s Visit is a droll and quirky charmer, unfolding slowly but steadily and drawing us into a unique comic netherworld. In Israeli writer-director Eran Kolirin’s debut film, the story is deceptively simple: An anachronistic police band from Alexandria, Egypt, show up in Israel for a gig, but travel confusion lands them in the wrong place. They “visit” for a night, then leave for the right town on the next day’s bus. End of story. Beginning of story.
From the first of 90 minutes’ worth of smartly composed shots introducing us at the airport to this weirdly prim band in powder blue uniforms, we can see that a formalist comedy is in store. Echoes of Buster Keaton and Jacque Tati emerge early on, but with a special kind of ennui and cultural alienation we recognize as being as contemporary as CNN. This tale of cautiously interactive cultures, though, takes place far beneath the radar and off to the side of direct conflict, in a remote town in Israel. This is a town where, as the story’s dynamic centerpiece, lonely cafe owner Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), puts it, there is “no Arab culture, no Israeli culture : no culture at all.” It’s a demilitarized and de-cultured zone, in other words, a perfect place for a modern-day fable about presumed foes reaching out to one another emotionally, across borders and resentments.
Once trapped, the various musicians have trouble dispensing with the formalities bred into them-as cued by the dignity-director played masterfully by Sasson Gabai. The freest spirit is the group’s youngest and most ill-fitting musician, a fan of Chet Baker and a self-defined expert in the wooing game. In a should-be classic and dryly hilarious scene, our lover man is seen giving first-hand lessons to his young Israeli counterpart in a roller rink.
A humanistic, subtly funny, and mesmerizing little film which never strains beyond its means or intentions, The Band’s Visit is that rare thinking person’s “feel good” film. We don’t feel the machinery of manipulation as the story eases into itself. But in its own sly way, Kolirin’s film gets busy working on heartstrings and some deeper longing we have for transcending the harsh racial and religious tensions separating and threatening humanity at this moment in time. For one night in a nowhere town, peace is at hand, to the warbling tune of “Summertime” sung after supper.