Among the fatuous decisions of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences this past year, the exclusion of The Band’s Visit from the Oscars’ Best Foreign Film category — because a high percentage of its dialogue is in broken English — has to rank very high. This gem of a film by first time Israeli director Eran Kolirin, about an Egyptian band’s trip to Israel, does not purport to solve — or even directly to address — the Arab-Israeli conflict. Instead, it focuses on the fragile, universal human desire for friendship and communication — whether in Arabic, Hebrew, or English — and on the capacity of music to bridge, even as it continues to acknowledge, the loneliness of human souls.
This is a short, simple tale, in which very little happens. The Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra arrives in Israel to perform at the opening of an Arab Cultural Center. Arrayed in powder blue uniforms that make them look like a cross between military officers and flight attendants, the band members find themselves abandoned at a bus terminal. The pay phone they use to try to contact their hosts keeps malfunctioning, so they decide to take a bus to their gig, only to arrive at the wrong destination — a small Israeli desert town with empty streets.
Before trying to find their way out of the town, they decide to stop and eat at a restaurant run by Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), who sits out front with her friend Itzik (Rubi Moskovitz). Realizing that there are no buses out of town until the next morning, the members of band accept the offer of lodging from Dina and her friend. For all the band members to find accommodation, they must split up. The film follows each group for the rest of the evening, during which conversations with local Israelis — and informal musical performances — figure prominently.
There is no direct comment on the Arab-Israeli conflict, but it can be felt at nearly every turn, in Itzik’s family’s initially grudging welcome of members of the band and in Dina’s wistfulness about a time when Israeli’s would watch Arab movies on a regular basis.
To communicate across the Arabic-Hebrew divide, they speak mostly in imperfect English. Adding to the cultural complexity and accentuating the film’s stress on the fragility of human communication, the characters occasionally talk to their countrymen in their own language, as others sit in silence and varying degrees of confusion. This is one of the many ways in which the film reflects on human isolation and separation — a universal condition, spanning all human cultures, that can be eased or overcome, if only momentarily, through language and especially music.
An opening voiceover speaks of the events described in the movie, about an Egyptian Police Band’s Visit to Israel, and states that “no one noticed” the trip because it was “not important.” Later in the film, during one of his conversations with Dina, the band’s stoic conductor Tawfiq (Sasson Gabai) comments that the classical Arab music they play is thought no longer to be “important.” When she asks, somewhat dismissively, why then do they play it, he responds that posing such a question is akin to wondering “why a man needs a soul.”
One of the more reserved members of the band, Simon (Khalifa Natour), impresses and moves his hosts by playing a piece he wrote himself — a concerto for which he has finished only the overture. He’s a bit ashamed that the work remains incomplete, but his hosts greet the news that he is working on a concerto with genuine interest. Discussion of that piece is the breakthrough moment for the members of the band and Itziks’ family; later, the entire dinner party sings “Summertime” together in broken English.
Khaled (Saleh Bakri), a handsome young member of the band, attempts to woo nearly every woman he meets; to spark feminine interest, he sings Chet Baker’s “My Funny Valentine.” Yet, he is never reduced to a crude playboy and, when late in the night, he plays “My Funny Valentine” on the trumpet for Dina and Tawfiq, it is one of the emotional high points of the film.
The understated celebration of music in The Band’s Visit continues a recent and welcome trend in film, even as it counters a Hollywood penchant (for example, in Silence of the Lambs and films featuring Nazis) to identify refined artistic taste with moral depravity. In its treatment of music as a form of art that reflects and elicits the deepest human emotions, bridges cultural divides, and elevates human life, The Band’s Visit calls to mind last year’s The Lives of Others and Once.
In The Lives of Others, set in early 1980s Berlin, an Eastern European spy assigned to eavesdrop on, and find incriminating evidence against, a playwright is gradually transformed from detached bureaucrat to empathetic observer; a pivotal moment in his conversion occurs as he listens to his victim play the piano. In Once, whose “Falling Slowly” won a much-deserved Oscar for Best Song, music-making is at the center of the plot; in this beautiful, small-budget Irish indie, shared appreciation of music is a basis for friendship and for the recovery, in the midst of troubled lives, of the higher impulses of our nature.
In all three films, music is a vehicle for bridging the gap between individuals and cultures. In its captivating communication of human passions — regrets, sorrows, hopes, joys, and fears — music manages to underscore simultaneously the commonality of human longing and the lingering separateness of human souls. In many ways the least complex of the three films, The Band’s Visit is a film of wit, wisdom, and ennobling human passion.
– Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of the forthcoming book, Arts of Darkness.