Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Next Week: The Band’s Visit

The romantic sound of Chet Baker has been bringing people together for years. In the upcoming film, The Band’s Visit, it even helps bridge the gap between Israelis and Egyptians—in a small way of course.

Visit is a variation on the lost band-on-the-road story. This band happens to be the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, lost in a provincial Israeli town, miles away from the Arab Cultural Center they are booked to play. Actually, provincial would be an understatement. However, they do find hospitality courtesy of Dina, a café proprietress, who convinces two of her regulars to split up the band with her, putting them up for the night.

Despite the obvious tension between the two nationalities, Visit is not really about politics. Like Lost in Translation it is about strangers of different backgrounds thrown together, who end up sharing private moments, which may or may not ultimately mean something. While the trailer might suggest that the Israelis are more apt to be depicted mockingly (“there is no culture here”), the film is actually quite even-handed. After all, it is common Israelis who shelter and feed the wayward Egyptian musicians. In Visit, Israelis and Egyptians are equally capable of being either people of substance, or dullards.

As Dina, Israeli actress Ronit Elkabetz is a smoldering screen presence. She is balanced perfectly by Sasson Gabai as the reserved leader of the band. Both are truly impressive in their scenes circling each other, and it is this brief relationship that forms the heart of Visit. Most notable amongst the rank-and-file of the orchestra is Khaled, the lady killer violinist and trumpeter who perfected a Chet Baker impersonation (with voice and trumpet) to woe women.

Director Eran Kolirin’s pacing is deliberate, but that should not be interpreted as a euphemism for slow. He just gives each scene as much time as it needs to play out. It would sound like Visit offers up the predictable message of: “people are the same everywhere, so give peace a chance.” It is certainly possible to read that into the film, but in truth, Visit’s apolitical nature is its deliberate political choice. At heart, it is a film about people, not geopolitics. It is also refreshing to see a film whose characters take music seriously, from Chet Baker to the traditional Arab classical music the police orchestra specializes in.

Originally slotted to be Israel’s Oscar submission for best foreign language film, Visit was disqualified due to language technicalities (for most of the film, characters communicate through their common halting English rather than Arabic and Hebrew). That is a shame, because it is a foreign film with very real crossover potential. Visit is a deceptively simple film that reveals in characters with grace and dignity. (Frankly, I was surprised how much I enjoyed the film.) It opens next Friday in New York at the Angelika.