The Band's Visit

The good kind of awkward -- 3.5 stars

Directed by Eran Kolirin. September 2007, Israel. Rated PG-13: 87 min.

(Originally published in buzz magazine on 3/30/2008)

Rightfully awarded the Prix Un Certain Regard at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, The Band’s Visit has a plot and sense of humor that reminds me somewhat of Lost in Translation. Sure, there’s no Bill Murray or Scarlett Johansson, and the foreign landscape is a sleepy, dust-caked village in Israel instead of the frantic urban hive of Tokyo. Still, its solid portrayal of the eight Egyptians in the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra and the sometimes-hilarious-but-always-awkward interactions they have with the locals recalls the squirming discomfort of watching Murray try (and fail) to communicate with the Japanese.

Eran Kolirin’s screenwriting and directorial debut begins with the baby blue-suited band stumbling around an airport in search of a ride. Representing Egypt, they have flown into Israel to perform at an Arab culture center. The ever-serious Tewfiq – a gruff, formal man with a haunting past – instructs the charming and mischievous Khaled to buy bus tickets for the group. Unfortunately, Khaled turns out to be better at wooing women than asking for assistance in another language, and the misunderstanding desk clerk sends the octet on a one-way ride to the middle of nowhere. With no buses leaving town until the next day, the band remains stuck overnight in a village with no hotels. They have no choice but to accept the hospitality of Dina, an outgoing restauranteur who just so happens to adore the passionate romance and loneliness in Arab cinema and culture. Maybe even enough to practically force the stone-faced Tewfiq into a date.

Kolirin’s mastery of immobile camerawork and occasional long takes of blank expressions enhance the affect of embarrassment rampant throughout the movie. One can’t help but blush and laugh as the uneasiness between Egypt and Israel plays out in the story – and can’t help but smile when characters bridge the culture gap to reach a mutual understanding. It’s really too bad that most of the conversations are in English; otherwise The Band’s Visit would have been qualified for Best Foreign Language Film and might have stood its ground against The Counterfeiters at the Oscars.