Culture | Unsentimental education

Eran Kolirin’s film The Band’s Visit resists cliché with its sincere portrayal of a meeting of cultures in Israel

Here’s the premise: an Egyptian police orchestra stays the night in a desolate Israeli town. In the process, the band members develop cross-cultural connections with the locals. This description of Eran Kolirin’s new film The Band’s Visit might sound saccharine and naïve, but, surprisingly, it’s not. Instead, it’s a sincere and meaningful story about human bonds that avoids exaggerated sentimentality.

Destined for an Arab cultural centre, the band is mistakenly dropped off in the wrong Israeli town. The members wait in their powder-blue police uniforms for their bus to return, and soon realize that their ride is not coming back anytime soon. The dour band leader, Tewfiq, is left with no other choice but to approach the only other people in sight. Dina, the alluring owner of a roadside restaurant, and her two friends stare at the unexpected scene unfolding before them. After Tewfiq uncomfortably explains his band’s dilemma, Dina offers him and his womanizing bandmate Khaled a place to stay, while the rest of the band spends the night with Dina’s friend Itzik and his family.

The language barrier is the main source of awkwardness between the band and their Israeli hosts; since the Israelis don’t understand Arabic and the Egyptians don’t understand Hebrew, they resort to broken English to communicate. Kolirin plays cleverly on the comedy of the situation. At the dinner table, Itzik makes clumsy attempts to stimulate conversation between his indignant family and the uptight band members. But the tension in Itzik’s home fades, to some extent, as the night progresses. The interactions become more meaningful: in a discussion about music, Itzik inspires a band member to complete a concerto that he has neglected for years.

Kolirin prevents these types of scenes from straying into sentimentality. During a night out, Dina and Tewfiq reflect on their lives, though Dina initially has difficulty breaking through his stern exterior. At a nearly empty falafel joint, she draws a few uncomfortable smiles from him. In spite of their differences, the two characters connect by sharing their individual regrets: Tewfiq discusses the guilt he feels regarding his son’s suicide, while Dina expresses her unfulfilled desire to make a life for herself outside of her small town. Their exchange is not a clichéd connection, although late-night heart-to-hearts are a Hollywood staple; Korlin stresses the authenticity of the character’s bond over common experience and mutual understanding.

Meanwhile, Khaled accompanies Papi, an insecure virgin, to a roller disco rink, where Papi makes a tentative move on a girl. As Khaled sits beside his apprentice, he discreetly whispers step-by-step tips on how to seduce her in a hilarious, yet sincere, exchange. The bond that Khaled and Papi make is short, but not too sweet; the relationship is based solely on this simple interaction.

After staying the night, the band catches a bus to the Arab Cultural Centre and plays their concert. The plot develops slowly, and the film has a tendency to drag on. The Band’s Visit is undoubtedly a film that requires the viewer to bear with it, yet the patience pays off.

More than anything else, the film reinvigorates a hackneyed message: that human connections can transcend cultural barriers. Exchanges like the one involving Khaled and Papi come off as sincere; they are touching, but they resist portraying an overly romanticized message of reconciliation.

The Band’s Visit is playing at the AMC Forum (2313 Ste. Catherine O.). Visit cinemamontreal.com for showtimes.


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