A quiet kind of despair inhabits the men in The Band’s Visit, a new and must-see film from Israel. As it were, Visit is overwhelmingly composed of male characters, men who seem lost, both spiritually and geographically. But there’s also something stirring about these men, who are from Egypt and who’ve wandered astray, like so many Sufi nomads on an adventure.
Tawfiq Zacharya (Sasson Gabai) is the conductor of Egypt’s Alexandria Police Orchestra, which has traveled to Israel to play at the inauguration of an Arab Cultural Center in a small Israeli town. Somewhere between the starting point and their destination, they have gotten lost. They now find themselves in an eerily quiet town, with a single and equally eery restaurant. The strained atmosphere among the weary men, almost all in the twilight of their lives except for a strapping young lad named Haled (Saleh Bakri), is fodder for much jocularity.
Since getting lost they have found themselves caught in one awkward situation after another and their stiff reactions, followed by the inevitable detente is disarming. Kolirin, an Israeli filmmaker who made a splash with this film at the Cannes Festival (it won a prize in the Director’s Fortnight program), skillfully teases the strained dynamics of the Israelo-Arab conflict out of the encounters between the Egyptian bandmembers and the Israelis who take them in. The film’s atmosphere is one of sapped exigency, because of the uncertain circumstances these men find themselves in–lost in a hostile land with bad directions.
Upon their arrival in (the wrong) town, they make their way to a restaurant run by Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), a thirtysomething SWF whose attitude of jaded amusement adds some no-nonsense to the situation. She offers to put some of the men up and finds home for the others. Most of the film is about what takes place during the night that follows, the interests that develop and the distressed fragility that gradually comes into focus. Kolirin’s camera work evokes a young Atom Egoyan. The push-and-pull dynamics of exile recall Fatih Akin’s trilogy movies and Kolirin’s simple camera work is reminiscent of Ramin Bahrani.
But what Eran Kolirin lacks–experience behind the camera–he makes up for with an innate ability to derive songlike spirituality out of the sense of loss experienced by his characters. As the film’s motto goes, “a small band in a small town–not many people remember this. It wasn’t that important.” The self-deprecating approach vindicates a triumphant feature film debut for Eran Kolirin. The Band’s Visit is a must-see!