A fan favorite at last year's Cannes as well as Israel's controversial entry in the foreign-language Oscar race (a category that notoriously picks a majority of sub-par films; this one didn't make the cut), Eran Kolirin's unassuming debut film, The Band's Visit, dispenses with culture critiques and ideologies in lieu of a good-natured set of episodes about stilted romances and mediocre comic riffs.
Ironically, mediocrity is exactly the thing Lieutenant Colonel Tawfiq (Sasson Gabai) is trying to avoid as he makes his way to Israel with the Alexandria Ceremonial Orchestra, a small policemen's orchestra from Egypt. Khaled (Saleh Bakri), his violinist, can't stop asking girls if they've heard of Chet Baker, a nuisance which Tawfiq blames for his band getting on a bus to Bet Hatikva instead of Petah Tikva. The minute they step off the bus in Hatikva it becomes crushingly apparent that they are on the sunny side of nowhere. A local café owner, Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), feeds the band and arranges for sleeping arrangements until the bus arrives the day after.
Kolirin, well aware of his near-Hallmark treading, orchestrates three nocturnal sonatas involving the members of the band and local residents with a delicate hand. Dina, feisty and fertile, invites Tawfiq to come out for some dinner and a late-night stroll. On the other side of town, Khaled is out at a roller-disco with Dina's friend Papi (Shlomi Avraham) and the most dreadfully gloomy date of all time. Elsewhere, Tawfiq's clarinet player ruminates on his unfinished concerto with a dysfunctional Israeli family.
Just as romance seems in-reach for Dina and Tawfiq over talk of Omar Sharif movies, Khaled returns and grabs an abrupt quickie with Dina before the band heads to Petah Tikva the morning after. It's at the very moment that Tawfiq awakes to see his violinist fiddling Dina through a crack in her door that the weight of the conductor's grief is felt. Played with superb gravitas by Gabai, Tawfiq at once awakens a more elegant flame in Dina's burner while also slowly peeling away his own monumental losses; the smothering of a desire that seems to only come alive when his is conducting his men.
Though Gabai is supremely effective and Bakri holds his own, the film builds most amply on the wild-eyed Elkabratz, best known as the divorced woman-of-concern in Dover Koshashvili's exceptional Late Marriage. In her sensuous delivery and her elastic contortions, the actress livens up the movement of the film, especially in the lagging moments that come a little too often to be ignored. Dina is at heart a terminally lonely woman who knows how to guise her wounds with eccentricities. It's the stuff of over-baked melodrama, but Elkabratz plays it so subtly and fluidly that you forget that you've seen the character a thousand times before.
Though there are a few metaphorical intimations to be had, it's Kolirin's bright direction and the consistent tone of the piece that allow it to succeed for the most part. Compositionally acute, The Band's Visit's agreeability belies its pointless end result. Where Gabai and Elkabratz strive to give the material some irregular beats, Kolirin's meandering script and the filmmaker's inability to muster any original ideas, apart from we-can-change ballyhooing, turn the film into an unconcerned exercise in good-humored theatrics, just a few notches left of that mediocrity the Lieutenant Colonel was so intent on diverting.
Aka Bikur Ha-Tizmoret.
I'm full. Now we polka.