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Orchestrating a poignant marvel

Emotional effects subtly pounce in 'The Band's Visit,' as an Egyptian group visits Israel.

December 07, 2007|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

"The Band's Visit," the Israeli film that's become celebrated for what it lacks -- enough Hebrew to contend for the best foreign language Oscar -- can now be seen and appreciated for what it has in abundance: visual wit, verbal charm and a completely droll sense of humor.

Debuting today for a one-week run before a February opening, this story of an Egyptian band's visit to Israel is both sweet-natured and sharply pointed, a film whose poignant, emotional effects and subtle acting sneak up on you.

The first feature for writer-director Eran Kolirin, "The Band's Visit" has already won the Israeli equivalent of the best picture Oscar, captured the international critic's prize for the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, and recently walked away with the best actor prize at the European Film Awards.

Though its characters and situations make it quintessentially Israeli, "The Band's Visit's" sly, restrained sensibility also gives it an unexpected Scandinavian flavor. It's as if the wonderful Norwegian "Kitchen Stories" was transplanted to the Middle East, with the endless desert substituting for frozen wilds.

The film's tone is set by its playfully absurd opening sequence. The driver of an Israeli airport van moves a huge yellow ball from the back to the front. The van drives away, revealing a line of eight Egyptian musicians, resplendent in baby blue uniforms and military hats, looking very lost, which is what they are.

Meet the Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra, scheduled to play at an Arab cultural center. No one, however, has thought to meet them at the airport, and instead of being visiting dignitaries they are forced to play out their hand as strangers in the strangest of lands.

In charge of the group is Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai, the European awards winner). A formal man at all times, so reserved he's unwilling to so much as remove his hat, Tewfiq feels special pressure to go by the book because budget difficulties have put the orchestra's existence in question.

At the opposite end of the scale is ladies' man Haled (Saleh Bakri), a major Chet Baker fan who chats up women as a reflexive action and whose very existence drives Tewfiq up the wall.

A language mix-up gets the band sent by mistake to a tiny town in the desert. It's a place, they are informed, of "no Arab culture, no Israeli culture, no culture at all." When the Egyptians wander up to a desultory snack bar, the slacker locals yell for the proprietor, "Hey, Dina, some general wants to talk to you."

Marvelously played by Ronit Elkabetz (memorable in "Late Marriage"), Dina is "The Band's Visit's" other great character. With a whiskey voice and a been-around stance, Dina is nobody's fool, but she is clearly intrigued by Tewfiq's courtly formality.

Because English is the only thing the Egyptians and the Israelis have in common, much of the film's dialogue is in that language, though people on both sides of the divide can't help but make cutting remarks to their friends the other side doesn't understand. Given how central language is to the film's themes, its disqualification from the foreign language Oscar is an especially regrettable technicality.

No bus is available to take the Egyptians to the correct town until the next day, so the band must spend the night in this great wrong place. Nothing cataclysmic happens, but by the time the visit is over, people have been genuinely and surprisingly touched by their gently eccentric experiences, and, to our surprise, we have as well.

"The Band's Visit." MPAA rating: PG-13 for brief strong language. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. Playing at Laemmle's Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills.

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