With his first feature film, “The Band’s Visit,” Israeli writer-director Eran Kolirin has accomplished a seemingly impossible task: to create a movie about Arab-Israeli relations that does not make political conflict its primary focus. Instead, Kolirin centers his tale on a more universal issue — the possibility of human connection in an alienating environment. Following the misadventures of an Egyptian band stranded in an Israeli town, “The Band’s Visit” succeeds as a quiet, yet hilarious, meditation on the difficulties of human interaction. Kolirin directs his tale with the utmost subtlety, drawing comedy from his characters’ social insecurities. Ultimately, however, “The Band’s Visit” may be too subtle and too reserved to leave any lasting impression on its audience.
Led by the painfully polite Lt. Col. Tawfiq Zacharya (Sasson Gabai), the members of the Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra arrive in Israel to perform at the opening of an Arab cultural center. Posing for a group photograph at the airport, the bandmates appear ridiculously out of place in their matching blue military uniforms. The colonel appoints Haled (Saleh Bakri), the band’s young, flirtatious violinist, to arrange bus transportation to their intended destination. Busy singing “My Funny Valentine” to the cute ticket girl, Haled buys passes for the wrong bus, which drops the band off not in Petah Tikva, the correct location, but in the similarly-named town of Bet Hatikva.
Unlike Petah Tikva, Bet Hatikva does not have an Arab cultural center; in fact, in the words of Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), a local restaurant owner, the desert town has “no culture at all.” Hungry from their travels, the band decides to dine at Dina’s café. After Dina informs them that no more buses leave Bet Hatikva until the morning, she offers up her own place and the homes of her employees, Papi (Shlomi Avraham) and Itzik (Rubi Moskovitz), to house the band for the night. Reluctantly, Papi and Itzik accept, and the band members split up into three separate groups.
At Dina’s insistence, the colonel agrees to spend a night “out on the town” with his new host. The two prove an amusingly awkward pair, as the colonel seems perpetually embarrassed by Dina’s attempts at friendliness. The couple, however, does achieve some level of connection, sharing memories of their troubled pasts as the night progresses. Meanwhile, Haled joins Papi on a blind date at a roller disco; unable to skate, Papi appears doomed to fail until Haled helps guide his new companion through this strangely romantic encounter.
Through Kolirin’s direction, the film focuses on these small, comical, and, at times, depressing scenes of attempted communication. The plot itself is simple and serves only as a vehicle to explore the intimacy of human interaction. With widely-framed shots that last longer than expected, Kolirin brings out the discomfort inherent in his characters’ interactions. Habib Shadah’s sparse piano score helps convey this feeling.
As the colonel, Gabbai takes his character’s courtesy to excruciating, but humorous, extremes. He successfully conveys the colonel’s fear of connecting with anyone, let alone Dina. In Gabbai’s performance, the colonel seems constantly troubled: A hidden sadness lurks in the weathered features of his face. Watching Gabbai’s performance is both a painful and satisfying experience.
Elkabetz delivers an impressively complex performance as Dina; in her hands, Dina alternately exudes both strength and vulnerability. Dina, resigned to her fate in this boring town, still remains desperate to continue living. Elkabetz also manages to make her character a believable love interest for both the middle-aged colonel and the young Haled. In Haled, Bakri creates a charmingly deviant character, presenting Haled as a handsome, confident flirt who still earns the audience’s affection.
The rest of the ensemble nicely compliments these lead performances. In particular, Khalifa Natour’s understated take on the pitifully awkward clarinetist Simon deserves special attention. Natour’s quiet facial expressions evoke the theme of the entire film — the heart-wrenching loneliness of isolation.
This mood, however, may actually impede the film’s ability to resonate. In the tagline, Kolirin declares the central subject of the story — the band’s visit to Bet Hatikva — not “that important.” With “The Band’s Visit,” Kolirin instead chooses to find importance in the small, fleeting moments of connection that the bandmates sometimes achieve with their Israeli hosts. But the film never serves as anything more than a witness to these moments. It leaves the audience wanting more — perhaps further exploration into its characters’ lives or some attempt at a non-comical perspective. While “The Band’s Visit” proves a worthwhile look into the humor and sadness of social discomfort, it comes dangerously close to fulfilling its own tagline, becoming another un-“important” film.