There they are in their powder blue uniforms. No one to meet them. Lost souls in a strange country. Egyptians in Israel.
It’s one of the first scenes in Eran Kolirin’s “The Band’s Visit,” an irresistibly delightful Israeli comedy that comes to us in a minor key. Its understated comedic approach does not smack us around with slapstick crescendos or dominant major chords. Rather, it pleasantly sneaks up on us with clever, offhand revelations and images that stay with us.
The visitors are members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra. Led by Tewfiq, an ultra-serious, middle-aged, mustachioed musician played by Israeli actor Sasson Gabai, the band has arrived in the wrong town. There, they are informed there is “no Arab culture, no Israeli culture. Nothing.”
Intent on maintaining reserve as well as personal and national dignity, Tewfiq confronts each little roadblock with unshakable composure. His disposition serves as a kind of sounding board for the film’s muted humor that at times resembles that which we find in a Gogol farce.
One of Tewfiq’s irritants is Haled, his own band member, who is more intent on picking up a girl than playing in tune. When he meets a potential conquest, his first question is invariably whether she knows jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. Later, he will serenade his guests with his version of one of Baker’s signature songs, “My Funny Valentine.”
’The Band’s Visit’
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY Eran Kolirin
STARRING Sasson Gabai, Ronit Elkabetz and Saleh Bakri
RUNNING TIME: 89 minutes
The setting is a perfect one to highlight the movie’s major concept, which is that when they meet as fellow human beings in a friendly, unimposing setting, people will get along, even if their countries are supposed to be mortal enemies.
The most endearing relationship is between Tewfiq and Dina, played by Israeli legend Ronit Elkabetz. Brash, feisty and a bit loose, Dina has a heart of gold. As dusk rolls into night, it’s apparent that Dina and Tewfiq are soul partners. Finally, he opens up. Kolirin handles this part of the film with tender wisdom and without one false note.
Among other incidental pleasures are scenes in which, for instance, Haled teaches an Israeli bumbler some approaches to romance. Again, no nationality issues or chauvinistic attitudes get in the way, proving that even conventional themes seem new when handled with delicate and mature art. Remove the political and religious obstacles and we can all embrace with warmth those we are trained to hate.
“The Band’s Visit” could and should have been a surefire Oscar contender for Best Foreign Film. But it was eliminated because the Egyptians and Israelis speak a neutral language — English, subtitled just in case some viewers have a problem with accents.
Even without the coveted Oscar pedigree, this modest comedy has to be the most delightful and enjoyable movie now playing in local theaters.