*The Band's Visit (PG-13)
Kimball's Twin Peak
When you hear this movie is about a band from Egypt (primarily Arab) traveling to perform in Israel (where the people are, you know, mostly Jewish), maybe your first reaction is to groan and moan and avoid it.
But The Band's Visit isn't political. It couldn't be further from "political." If you were an alien who just landed on Earth and wanted to check out this "movie" thing so popular among the natives, alien-you would find a film simply about loneliness, loss and missed opportunities. You might even learn a little about humans and how we screw ourselves up and, sometimes, fix ourselves. You wouldn't know Arab or Jew, hatred or war.
But we are human, so The Band's Visit was banned by festivals in both Cairo and Abu Dhabi because it is shocking to suggest Arabs and Jews might not want to kill one another at first sight. Some humans bring politics to this flick, but they have to bring it. It's not there.
The film itself, from Israeli writer-director Eran Kolirin, is beautiful, gentle, warm and a little silly (in the best possible way). It features the Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra and conductor Tawfiq (Sasson Gabai). We meet them at the airport in Israel, where they are to perform for the opening of an Arab cultural center.
Their escort never shows up, and the motif of abandonment and isolation that runs through the film starts here. It's in the mock-serious-yet-poignant tone Kolirin creates as the guys stand around in full regalia, perking up when someone carrying flowers shows up, and then jointly deflating as the "welcoming committee" passes them. You want to laugh and cry, as their hopefulness and optimism humanizes them.
They finally get on a bus, but it's the wrong bus, of course, and things grow worse as they pitifully drag their rolling luggage through the desert to a nearby small town. It's funny and miserable, and gets more of both as they wait in a caf run by Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), who finds each a home to stay for the night.
The awkwardness that Kolirin stirs up as the guys settle in with their unlikely hosts has nothing to do with decades-long warfare, but with things that people all over the planet can identify with. Like having unexpected company crash our domestic tranquility, or lack thereof ... or like how an encounter with someone who has a surprising outlook can shake up our complacency.
Israel submitted The Band's Visit to the Oscars in 2007, hoping it would be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film but it was disqualified, because more than half the dialogue is English. (The rest is Arabic and Hebrew.)
Maybe that was a blow for the filmmakers, but it might be a sign Kolirin has achieved some of the vision he has described: merely to demonstrate that people are people, no matter what language they speak or culture they claim. The filmmaker has certainly cleared a middle ground in which we can all recognize that hopes and fears and disappointments are pretty universal.