The tagline for this little gem of a film brilliantly sums its sweet but bathetic tone in a few words: “Once, not long ago, a small Egyptian police band arrived in Israel. Not many people remember this…it wasn’t that important”.
The Band’s Visit is not a self-important film about the bridging of cultures, the power of music or the healing of historical wounds. Instead, it wins you over immediately with its understated and melancholy charm, as it is content to concern itself with the story of a travelling band who find themselves stranded in a foreign city. Luckily, friendly barmaid Dina is on hand to offer them shelter for the night and a slow exploration of their characters emerge.
The band themselves are a superb array of characters, who all look as though they are thoroughly ordinary members of the Egyptian police. Collectively, they give off a perfect mix of confusion, awkwardness and self-imposed dignity, as they do their best to represent Egypt abroad, with the fantastic absurdity of the rigid discipline that permeates the orchestra. Sasson Gabai gives a great performance as Tawfiq, the excruciatingly polite leader of the band, and he is well-balanced by the other two main characters, Khaled, the arrogant young womaniser, and Simon, Tawfiq’s put upon second-in-command. These three provide the main three threads of the story, as they get to know their Israeli hosts over the course of one night.
The one weak point of the film is the unlikely coincidence that all three have epiphanies of a sort, but all three are so charmingly dealt with that it’s difficult to get annoyed. By far the most touching strand is Simon’s, as his stay with an Israeli family proves that the thing that we probably share most is awkwardness when confronted with strangers. There’s no great political message and the idea that music is a transcendent force that crosses cultures , is dealt a cruel blow when Simon’s performance of his (unfinished) clarinet concerto is treated with total apathy. His is a melancholic, but far from bleak, story of frustrated ambition and loneliness, a theme which pervades the film. This theme is strongly reinforced by the portrayal of small town Israel. We see it not as an exotic place (probably because it’s an Israeli-made film) but as an economically depressed place stuck in the seventies surrounded by the bleakest desert.
Tawfiq’s story, of his growing friendship and gradual opening up to Dina, which forms the major part of the film, is less immediate in its impact, but is just as brilliant. The slow transformation of the constantly tense policeman into a man who reveals his soul is brilliant, but never loses its credibility. In fact, one of the most creditable areas of the film is the limited nature of the changes undergone by the characters. The message is that no-one changes overnight and it renders the sweet stories all the more believable.
Gabai’s constancy of emotional reserve creates a sympathetic heart to a film that has a lot to say about what cannot be said. Khaled’s story links into this theme nicely, even though it is a more comic (although defiantly in the style of Wes Anderson) storyline. His attempt to teach one their hosts the art of seduction is both hilarious and heart-breaking at the same time.
The key to the film is that, although very little has changed by the morning, all the characters have been enriched by the experience. That might sound like a cheesy ending, but it’s handled with simplicity, care and bathos, although the latter is just a word I like the sound of. It’s not an “important film” but it is one that will make you happier and, hopefully, lots of people will remember it.