Movie Review: The Band's Visit
By Matthew Huntley
March 21, 2008

What do you mean, you don't like mustaches?

The Band's Visit starts out simple and straightforward but eventually grows into something beautifully poetic. Watching it, I thought about how so many movies attempt to weave us through plots that are unnecessarily complicated, but here is a short Israeli film that succeeds by simply being about universal human emotions. It's elegiac and bittersweet, teaching us that sometimes it's the passersby we meet who allow us to reflect on who we are.

The film opens when eight members of an Egyptian police band arrive in Israel. They've come to play at the opening ceremony of an Arab Cultural Center in a city called Pet Hatikva. By accident, they take a bus to [B]et Hatikva and wind up, as the locals would say, "in the middle of nowhere." The leader of the group is a lieutenant colonel named Tawfiq (Sasson Gabai), who humbly asks a local restaurant manager named Dina (Ronit Elkabetz) if she'd be so kind as to feed his men and put them up for the night.

Since the band's arrival seems to be the most exciting thing ever to happen in Bet Hatikva, Dina willfully agrees. Perhaps she's even excited, as she offers her apartment to Tawfiq and the band's youngest member, a desiring fellow named Khaled (Saleh Bakri), who charms women by singing to them and asking if they like Chet Baker. The other six members are divvied up among the other locals.

The Band's Visit generates most of its laughs in the way it finds humor in awkward social situations. Some of the funniest scenes take place during the clarinet player's stay with an out-of-work Israeli man and his family. It's the man's wife's birthday, who shoots her husband dirty looks because she never planned on spending the evening with strangers, let alone a clarinet player who muses, and eventually performs, his unfinished concerto.

Dina and Tawfiq decide to go out together, which, in this town, pretty much means just going to a different restaurant. They discuss things like marriage, children and wrong choices. One of the film's finest points is how we're able to pour our hearts out to those we know we'll never see again, which is why Dina and Tawfiq are willing to let their emotional guards down. We're sometimes comfortable with strangers because if we know we're never going to seem them again, what we say won't later be used against us. We feel protected somehow.

Khaled also has a night out when joins Dina's friend, Papi (Shlomi Avraham), on a double date to the local roller skating rink. Khaled gives the young man pointers and teaches him how to comfort his date, which sets up the film's funniest and most inspired scene.

When I called the film "simple," I meant it in the sense that not many events happen. There's very little action in it. But simple-minded it is not. Writer-director Eran Kolirin mixes in some deeply profound themes on loneliness, loyalty, compassion and regret, all with a gazing sense of humor that's able to connect us to the Arabs and Israelis. The film validates humor as a universal human response.

The Band's Visit put me into a state of reflection, and I could see why it won several Israeli Academy Awards. I think about this film and I smile because it makes me feel connected to other human beings. It knows all humans are alike somehow, that when we're lost, it is possible to count on strangers, even learn from them. I'm sure Kolirin was just being ironic by opening the film with the words, "Once - not long ago - a small Egyptian police band arrived in Israel. Not many remember this...It wasn't that important." On the contrary, for the characters, and for us, it was very important.