The opening intertitles that accompany The Band’s Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret) explain the charming film’s seemingly slight premise in full, with the compelling feature predicated upon the arrival of a group of Egyptian musicians in Israel. The text continues to advise that not many remember the event, for it was not that important. The small nature of the events depicted proves anything but to the characters involved, and to the watching audience.
Set over the course of two days, writer/director Eran Kolirin’s applauded, allegorical debut charts the journey through Israel of the visiting Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra. Their voyage is dictated by a date to play at the opening of an Arab cultural centre, however locating their destination is far from straightforward. After being deposited at a bus station, the lack of connecting shuttle forces the eight uniformed men to navigate through the foreign land. A hastily arranged coach ride leads to a walk through the desert to a tiny, remote town, albeit not the one they need to find.
Arriving in the wrong place on account of a bout of language-fuelled miscommunication, the band is stranded without money, transport or accommodation. After explaining their mistake, the compassionate, confident owner of a local restaurant becomes their saviour, offering assistance in the form of food and a place to stay for the evening. With English driving their conversations, the group’s stern, severe leader Lieutenant-colonel Tawfiq Zacharya (Sasson Gabai, Restoration) befriends the hospitable Dina (Ronit Elkabetz, The Flood). Her pals and patrons Itzik (Rubi Moskovitz, Court) and Papi (Shlomi Avraham , The Loners) also come to their aid, providing the band – mild-mannered deputy Simon (Khalifa Natour , The Other Son) and rebellious instigator of their detour Khaled (Saleh Bakri, The Source) included – with a night to remember.
Accordingly, The Band’s Visit explores an array of mis-matches – in expectation, personality and culture. A proud group directed by an equally prideful commander, they arrive in Israel filled with anticipation. Yet, each small setback proves their scenario is somewhat less lofty than imagined, from the unceremonious delivery on the side of the road that opens the film, to their awkward negotiations inside the transit terminal, to their originating chats with Dina and her diner customers. The reality of their circumstances is vastly dissimilar to that promised, with the film charting their acceptance of the new actuality.
Behaviour and demeanour drive much of their quiet conflict, both within the band and with their hosts. Tawfiq refuses to acquiesce to any other way of thinking, causing consternation within his charges, particularly the headstrong Khaled. Yet, in a moment of shared loneliness, Dina sees something more beyond his fierce exterior. Her attempts to unravel the mysteries of his make-up are mirrored in the initially uncomfortable, eventually affable encounters between her friends and the other members of his group.
Both clashes tie into the film’s primary thematic arc of cross-cultural friendship. In an affecting and elegant display motivated by Kolirin’s efficacious script, the film breaks down the borders between Israelis and Arabs. Although such a feat has been strived for in countless features before and since, The Band’s Visit does so in an unassuming yet utterly effective manner. As an effort avoiding the extremes of the debate to focus on ordinary characters in extraordinary circumstances, it eschews political dissections to consider the simplicity of opposing communities coming to understand the abundance of commonality that exists beneath their ingrained hesitation and suspicion.
As such, the feature excels in its endeavour to tackle a tough topic on an intimate scale, humanising through average protagonists, universal reactions, and ample lashings of bittersweet humour. Indeed, every element from the assured direction to outstanding performances is targeted at such an aim, with the film disregarding its seemingly small stature. Kolirin’s witty words ensure each conversation, no matter how potentially unpleasant or infused with mixed sentiments, teems with delicacy and authenticity. His sense of style, too, is astute, ambitious and explorative, as well as restrained, resonant and riveting, as exemplified by the stellar cinematography of Shai Goldman (Policeman).
Additionally, the efforts of the impressive, sympathetic cast cannot be underestimated, with their graceful yet gregarious portrayals pivotal to the feature’s inherent humanity. Their deadpan delivery dictates the shape and course of the events that unfold, and the viewer’s reactions to them; none more so than the reserved but revelatory Gabai in the lead. As meaningful moments unravel, and tender truths are both spoken and left unsaid, the actors remain the heart and soul of the observant offering. Kolirin responds accordingly to the pathos and poignancy they depict, making the touching end product not only worthy of its array of international accolades (three Cannes nods and two European Film Awards among them), but of the permeating respect the finessed, thoughtful film has cultivated among audiences.