by Brian Bergen-Aurand
The Band’s Visit (Directed by Eran Kolirin, Israel/USA/France, 2007) disappointed me. The film has been very well received by critics. It has a 98% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has won “over 35 international awards.” And I’ll admit, I was a fan through the first 2/3 of the film. For sixty minutes, the acting and the subtle humor were captivating. I did find the film “charming,” as had been promised by one critic. And, yet, something happened around the 60th minute, when the film lost its sense of humor. At that point, it lost its charm.
The plot is simple. The story is minimal. The eight-member Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arrives to Israel from Egypt. They’ve been invited by the Arab Cultural Center in Petah Tiqva, but through a truly comedic mistranslation, they arrive by accident in Bet Hatikva, a fictional modernist enclave dropped into the middle of the Negev desert. There is no cultural center. There is no transportation. There is no hotel. This part is funny and played very well by Sasson Gabai, who is delightful as Tawfiq Zacharya–the band’s conductor and lead singer.
The band is already on the chopping block, and we get the sense that one more mistake will be its last. The local authority in Alexandria is looking to make budget cuts.
The band members have little Israeli money and seek the help of the server at the Bet Hatikva restaurant. Dina (Ronit Elkabetz) volunteers to feed them and let three members stay with her, three members stay at the restaurant, and two stay at a friend’s house.
That evening we learn a good deal more about the characters and their failures. This is ultimately a film about the connections we build when we fail. And while the film maintains a sense of the ridiculous, it succeeds. The Arabs have failed. The Israelis have failed. The government officials don’t listen. The state structures are sorely lacking. Everyone is abandoned to this overwhelming block of flats in the desert. No one talks. No one connects.
Then, they do connect, through being in the wrong place at the wrong time and playing music or listening to one another’s stories.
Yet, the stories in the end are too serious. What is ridiculous and inviting in the beginning falls away to leave what feel like empty gestures. (There is a wave goodbye.) No intention goes wrong in the end. No gesture turns against itself. No mistaken pun leads to anything different. The stasis of seriousness takes over where the dynamism of comedy had once offered to take us to the brink of possibility. The Band’s Visit needed to laugh at itself just a little bit more.