Friday, February 15, 2008

The Band's Visit ***1/2

Director: Eran Kolirin
Cast: Sasson Gabai, Saleh Bakri, Ronit Elkabetz

The Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra led by Lt. Colonel Tawfiq Zacharya (Gabai) arrives in Israel. They have been invited to play in the inauguration of a new Arab Cultural Center, but when nobody comes to get them at the airport, the men decide they can find it by themselves.
A small pronounciation mistake takes them to a small town in the middle of the desert, where the bus stops by only once a day.
They encounter Dina (Elkabetz) a kind restaurant owner who arranges accomodations for their overnight stay and feels excited about the breath of fresh air that has arrived in her quiet life.
A group of sky blue uniform clad men, stranded in a small town where they don't speak the language would make for a funny comedy, starting with the oddity of the image.
Add to this the fact that it's about Arab and Jewish characters who in their history have enough themes to fill a thousand movies and not only this but the characters are also separated by the fact that policemen and civilians are separated by different codes of conduct.
Without much effort director Kolirin could've made himself a harmless, albeit stereotyped film about why people are the same and what not.
That he chooses to take a completely different path and deliver a beautiful chamber piece about the nature of loneliness is just one of the films many miracles.
The members of the band vary from the quietly loyal (Imad Jabarin), to Fauzi (Hisham Koury) who gets inspiration for a converto he's writing in the most unexpected places, to Khaled (Bakri), the womanizing stud who sings "My Funny Valentine" whenever his hormones call and stands for everything Tawfiq is against.
Town people feature the sweet and lovable Papi (Shlomi Avraham) who gets flirting tips from Khaled in what turns out to be one of those awkwardly romantic scenes that seem to be extracting images from your memory.
Filled with cute subplots and never a preachy moment, the plot isn't about social themes as much as it's about the universality of feelings.
When some of the actors erupt into a spontaneous performance of "Summertime" it's never about how much their world has been invaded by Western culture, but about how despite what they thought they have music to bond them.
The cast is wonderful, Elkabetz takes hold of the screen with her raspy voice and exotic, earthy beauty that cast a spell on you and Avraham steals every scene he's in.
Gabai's performance is a study of restrain and keeping your things to yourself in order to avoid suffering, he gives one of those rare selfless performances that let everyone else take the spotlight but is ultimately the thing you can't take your eyes away from.
Kolirin masterfully build backgrounds for these people that reminisce the richness with which Robert Altman impregnates his characters and while the film's mood is more Eastern European than New American, you can sense the start of a new voice in Middle Eastern film.
That in the space of a night, summarized in a little over an hour, Korilin lets us take a peek into the lives of the people in the town and creates new dramatic archs, including a bittersweet love triangle, without forcing it upon us, remains almost magical.
Based on the idea that life is what happens while you're waiting for it, you know for sure that these people will never forget these events, in the very same way you may never forget this film.

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