Unexpected Visitors

My synagogue and one of our neighboring churches have been co-sponsoring a thoughtfully programmed film series over the last couple of years, "The Face of the Other," which focuses on the socio-political implications of "otherness." The catalog of titles is a striking and impressive on, including, most recently, Laurent Cantet's The Class, which I managed to miss when it played theatrically. I've been the "facilitator" for several of these films, and the discussions that have followed have been intelligent and provocative.

Needless to say, the reason I'm mentioning this is that I'm speaking once again at the next offering in the series, and it's recent favorite of mine, Eran Kolirin's bittersweet comedy, The Band's Visit. That is a film I did manage to see, and review, when it opened last year. In fact, my review for Jewish Week is below:

Loneliness seems to be built into the human condition. Blaise Pascal said, “We die alone,” and that limitation on human aspirations – mortality – both unites and divides us all. Mortality and solitude both cut across national boundaries and religious differences.

That gloomy thought has its obverse, though. If we can recognize our shared humanity, our common fate, we can reach across the divisions between us and alleviate our loneliness, if only for a moment. All that is necessary is a willingness to accept the Other, to see oneself in that person.

Heavy thoughts to open a discussion of what is, essentially, a very, very funny comedy, Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit. The film’s basic premise is a simple comedy of errors: the Alexandria Police Orchestra has been brought to Israel to play at the opening of an Arab Culture Center in Petakh Tikva, but snarled communications have brought them to the desolate desert town of Bet Hatikva. (If you don’t get it, try reading the towns’ names aloud.) Bet Hatikva is, as Papi (Shlomi Avraham), one of the town’s perpetually unemployed succinctly puts it, “Bloody nowhere.” And, of course, the day’s last bus from nowhere is the one that dropped the band’s members in its middle.

The queen of this admittedly dubious realm is Dina (Ronit Alkabetz), a tough-but-tender divorcee with an endearingly tolerant personality. Over the course of a long evening in a town with nothing but a falafel joint and a drab, mostly empty roller disco (yes, ”Xanadu” fans, there is roller disco somewhere in Israel), she establishes a warm rapport with the band’s compulsively dignified and proper leader, Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai). She even manages to get him to warm up to his youngest, most obstreperous underling, Khaled (Saleh Bakri), a womanizing Chet Baker fan. Elsewhere in this godforsaken town, the feckless Itzik Rubi Moscovich) will inspire would-be composer Simon (Khalifa Natour) to reconsider his abandoned clarinet concerto, and Khaled will give Papi a lesson in seduction that provides the film’s most utterly hilarious sight gag.

First-time feature director Kolirin, who also wrote the excellent script, understands the valuable lesson of great comedy directors like Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges, that underneath the laughter there lurks deep personal pain and the balancing act that keeps both those moods in play is a delicate but rewarding one (a lesson lost on most contemporary American filmmakers). His script is never remotely preachy, but the film’s points are gotten across with subtlety and wit.

Screenwriter Kolirin is helped in no small way by director Kolirin. The Band’s Visit, from its opening shot of an airport van framed solemnly by two columns that hold up a most unprepossessing bus shelter, much of the film’s visual humor derives from Kolirin’s highly formal, generally symmetrical staging. He gives the film an intentionally funny gravitas by emphasizing the incongruously ceremonial elements of the situation, such as the band’s powder-blue uniforms that stand out absurdly in the grey concrete dustiness of the town, and their military bearing in the unlikeliest situations, which will be echoed by Tewfiq’s awkward dignity in the face of Dina’s insouciance.

And he is aided immeasurably by a uniformly superb cast, starting with Sasson Gabai’s impenetrable sang-froid, which makes such a perfect counterpoint to Ronit Alkabetz’s no less unshakeable wry humor. Saleh Bakri, in his first film appearance, is a particularly fortuitous discovery, sort of a young Palestinian George Clooney, knowing that he is flat-out sexy and rather amused by the consequences. Kolirin has a good eye for the telling behavioral detail that transforms his protagonists from potential caricartures into warm-blooded characters.

In a film industry as economically tenuous as Israel’s has proven in the past decade, one hestitates to make predictions for anyone’s budding career, but is a splendid calling card for Eran Kolirin; he is definitely another name to add to the growing list of highly promising Israeli filmmakers to watch.

The Band's Visit will be shown Thursday, November 19 at 7 p.m. at Fort Washington Collegiate Church (181st St. & Ft. Washington Avenue). The event is free and for those of you with nothing better to do than read this blog -- a frightening thought, that -- you can meet its author and buy him a drink.