Tuesday, March 11, 2008


The music of diplomacy

By Edward Copeland
High-stakes diplomacy conjures images of tense negotiations between countries. However, writer-director Eran Kolirin's film The Band's Visit shows how the smallest, simplest gestures in situations where peace and security aren't on the line often can accomplish the most lasting and important steps.

Seeing The Band's Visit offered one of those rarest of opportunities for a filmgoer: Going into a movie with very little knowledge of what it's about ahead of time. I never read any reviews of the film prior to seeing it and all I really knew was the Israeli film had appeared on the list for best foreign film at the 2007 Independent Spirit Awards.

In fact, by the time I saw The Band's Visit, I'd even forgot what country it came from. (Seeing a film blind doesn't always end up well: I remember walking ignorantly into a screening of Relentless decades ago only to suffer through one of Judd Nelson's most grating performances.)

It's risky to shower too much praise on a film as delicate as The Band's Visit. It isn't a great film, but it accomplishes its modest aims just about as well as you could hope. Too often, reviews suck the work in question toward either the very best or the very worst when sometimes films should just be lauded for what they are.

If I used a 4-star scale, The Band's Visit would be one of those perfect 3-star movies. The film tells the story of a ceremonial police orchestra from Alexandria, Egypt, which is heading to Israel for a cultural exchange when the simple misunderstanding of the name of their destination lands them instead in an Israeli town whose residents describe it as culture free.

The leader of the musicians is Tewfiq, a proud colonel (Sasson Gabai) who not only views his ceremonial role as an important one but finds the lack of a similar sense of dignity among younger members of the group particularly disconcerting. He's also further worried by the possibility that budget cuts will bring the orchestra to an end because the importance of music has diminished in time.

Tewfiq finds unexpected charity from Dina, an Israeli restaurant owner (Ronit Elkabetz) in the small town where the band find itself stranded. Dina is more or less a free spirit, who feels many are still living in the "stone age" and she brings out parts of Tewfiq he's long since repressed.

What's fascinating is that while aspects of Arab-Israeli conflict continually float near the surface, Kolirin never allows them to overwhelm the simple slice of life he's depicting.

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Was the (naturally) accented English dialogue subtitled where you saw the film? It was in certain parts of the UK, I hear (and also in parts of the US).

It's bizarre this was deemed ineligible for a best foreign film Oscar on such an arbitrary technicality.
Yes, the English was subtitled. I didn't realize it was ruled ineligible, I just figured Israel chose to submit Beaufort instead.
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