Though it's both a predictable culture-clash comedy and a gentle plea for people of different political backgrounds to "just get along," "The Band's Visit" nevertheless manages to use its central contrivances and inevitable cliches to its favor, and becomes something ethereal and winning. This debut from Israeli filmmaker Eran Kolirin, in which the soft-spoken members of an Egyptian brass band (the stodgy Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, to be precise) find themselves stranded in a small Israeli town on the way to a gig, parlays its initial good-natured dullness into surprisingly robust drama. Kolirin's schematics, both in its narrative turns and its overtly stylized compositions, threaten to reduce politics to bromides -- yet the filmmaker is wonderfully keyed into the subtleties of human behavior, and evinces a splendid love for all of his characters that borders on infectious adoration. "The Band's Visit" may wear its quaintness too much on its sleeve, but for a dose of what is essentially movie medicine, it goes down awfully easily.
Buoyed by a succession of delicately wrought, neatly composed frames, "The Band's Visit" would be a more modest, strictly technical success if not for the screen presences of the immensely likable Sasson Gabai and Ronit Elkabetz. Gabai, whose tightly drawn, weathered, Stalin-esque features have made him a natural for lower-grade, xenophobic action and suspense movies over the course of his career (his U.S. credits include "Rambo III," "Not Without My Daughter," and "Delta Force One"), elegantly embodies the stoic loneliness of Egyptian band leader and police officer Tewfiq, whose sense of civil propriety and national pride is thrown into confusion when the band's schedule goes awry. Outfitted, like his subordinate band mates, in formfitting uniform and cap (the dignity of which are somewhat undone by their almost infantilized baby blues, often popping against the drab brown environs), Gabai makes Tewfiq into a wonderfully complex mix of the masculine and the fragile, a tightly coiled ball of personal disappointments and secret hopes.
Tewfiq's dour inscrutability is well (mis)matched to the earthy, emotional openness of cafe proprietress Dina, played by Elkabetz (from the superb Israeli films "Late Marriage" and "Or") with magnetic charm and sexy self-consciousness. Dina and her co-worker offer Tewfiq and his men night lodging when they're abandoned by their Israeli hosts and can't get through to the Egyptian consulate. While their "opposites attract" trajectory might have been played as screwball, Korilin allows their differences and similarities to flourish, and the unspoken romantic connection that grows between them over the course of the night is suffused with natural tension and a sweet nonchalance.
Of course, for every underplayed moment, there's another that egregiously angles for audience ingratiation -- a dinner table, language barrier-breaking sing-along of Gershwin's "Summertime" among three Egyptian band mates and their Israeli hosts is even more leaden than Spielberg's use of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" to "unite" the Mossad assassins and PLO members goofily thrown together as bunk mates in "Munich." And an attenuated subplot involving handsome ladies' man trumpeter Haled (Saleh Bakri) giving dating advice to a clueless local at a roller disco threatens to infect the entire film with a severe case of the cutes.
Yet overall "The Band's Visit" remains an astute crowd-pleaser without sacrificing its core emotional honesty. It's tempting to write it off as a precious and politically reductive metaphor for Arab-Israeli relations, yet Kolirin allows so many tender grace notes that the possibility of cross-cultural communication seems not only possible but essential.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]
EDITOR'S NOTE: This review was originally published during "The Band's Visit"'s Academy qualifying run in early December, 2007