' ' Cinema Romantico: The Band's Visit

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Band's Visit

The seven piece Egyptian Alexandria Memorial Police Orchestra is dropped off in the Israeli countryside to play a concert at an Arab cultural center. In an unfortunate turn of events, however, no one comes to pick them up. In time they discover they have confused the correct town name with another and so somehow need to get from where they are to where they need to go. They could call their embassy but band leader Tewfiq is intent on taking care of the issue himself.

This movie had all the makings of something obvious that would possess a conclusion foregone the moment we first glimpse Tewfiq and his band in their matching blue suits. You know the sort, colorful locals, crazy misadventures, valuable life lessons. But writer/director Eran Kolirin chooses to make a film more restrained and far more elegant.

That's not to say we will not be introduced to some colorful locals nor will there be a lack of adventure, though it's not necessarily the crazy sort. You watch the film and sense comedic seeds being planted in preparation for having them sprout in the third act in the form of uproarious shenanigans, except your sense would be wrong.

Did you ever see the Scot film "Waking Ned Devine" from about 10 years ago? That's the one where the character of Ned Devine wins the lottery at the start and then passes away. One of the characters ends up impersonating Ned Devine to fool the lotto official and to keep up appearances a fake funeral must be staged for the person pretending to be the title character and the fake funeral seems to be a set-up for numerous hijinks. Instead, however, the movie chooses to take the opportunity and make something moving and heartfelt out of it by having one character to deliver a eulogy for the character supposedly deceased who, in fact, is sitting in the front pew.

I think of this scene because its particular quality is all over "The Band's Visit". If the set-ups are a bit obvious then the payoffs are not, and this makes for an enjoyable, refreshing and often moving film.

It does not take long for the band to meet Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), the owner of a small cafe with two young men perpetually planted at tables at its patio. She offers them food and then a place to stay for the night. Tewfiq and Khaled, a young and slightly rebellious ladies man, stay with Dina while the rest will stay with one of those young men fixed on the patio.

As Tewfiq, Sasson Gabai appears confused and frightened and sometimes even a little saddened (especially where music is concerned) by the world around him. Dina, of course, is far more full of life, but this does not mean she will inject this same spirit into Tewfiq. She gets him to open up, just a bit, and then he does the same to her, revealing another layer rippling below her surface.

In the end, though, I came to feel the most for Khalifa Natour as Simon, the band's second-in-command, the "sometimes" conductor, and just as soft-spoken as its leader. He seems capable of expressing his full life - what he has gone through, where he is now, where he wants to go - in just a few facial expressions. We come to learn he has written a concerto - well, he hasn't actually written it. He started it, but never finished it. We glimpse from his bandmates that perhaps this fact gets mentioned quite often.

Along with two of those bandmates, Simon spends the evening at the home of Camal, the young man from the patio who neglected to tell his wife about the incoming guests. And, oh yes, it just happens to be his wife's birthday. Simon shares a scene with Camal at the side of his baby's crib as Camal offers advice to Simon about how his concerto could conclude. And as he does, without the director or Natour forcing it, we realize that as young Camal describes his life he is also describing Simon's life. It is a magnificent moment.

There is one more character in the film it would be easy to overlook. He is a young man eternally waiting by a payphone for a particular call to come in. It is irrelevant whether or not it does, or even who is on the other end. It is key, I think, because in essence all our main characters in "The Band's Visit" are waiting for that phone to ring. Here's to hoping it does.

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