The Band's Visit begins with a silent-movie title card: "Once — not long ago — a small Egyptian police band arrived in Israel. Not everyone remembers this; it wasn't very important." Seldom has an opening shot summarized a film better.
Writer/director Eran Kolirin's new comedy is demure, modest, and simple. It's also boring as hell, but if you don't mind some quiet time in the theater to think for yourself while the film's poetry leavens, it can hardly be called a disappointment.
The police band's leader is singer-conductor Lieutenant-Colonel Tawfiq Zacharya (Sasson Gabai). Dressed in his sky-blue quasi-military ensemble, Tawfiq stiff-chests his way through the film like he's king of the crossing guards. When he's not incanting his band's name, "Alexandria Ceremonial Orchestra," to anyone within earshot — as if it were a magical mantra that could lift him from the Israeli town he and his boys mistakenly find themselves in — he keeps his eye on Haled (Saleh Bakri), a lean, confident smoothie whose interest in foreign women supersedes his fears of a foreign land.
After some poky, jokey compositions in and around the airport that toy with deep and shallow space — the actors peep and peer out from the edges of the frame like endangered species caught on tape for the first time — the band stops for food and directions at a wayside café run by Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), a forty-something woman whose time in this dusty backwater has not dimmed her lust for life. Because this small town has no hotel, and because there's no bus to take the band to the city where they are supposed to perform, Dina offers a couple band members beds for the evening. Incredibly low-voltage romantic mischief follows — or threatens to.
Elkabetz shows a little paunch and weariness in her body and posture, and she spits English in a way that nobody could call seductive, but she's a natural, sexy performer and a reminder of what is lost when only certain kinds of feminine beauty are allowed onscreen. Tawfiq resists her arsenal of romantic gestures as long as he can, until some revelations tumble from him in lieu of a goodnight kiss.
The wait for action of any kind is long for the other actors, who always seem to stand at right angles to each other like variables in an unsolved geometry problem. But the little poetry of little movies is there waiting. One sequence, in which Haled takes another café worker on the town and tries to teach him the rules of love in a nearly empty roller-rink, begins and ends with a sad sigh that evokes some of Buster Keaton's tentative romantic moments.
In spite of some of these moments, I still found The Band's Visit too slow and reserved. Maybe something else was going on with me as I watched it, though. While Tawfiq tried to resist Dina's advances, I kept thinking about Brett Favre's retirement from football. Now, I'm a huge Packers fan — a season-ticket holder, in fact. Seeing one more classy, talented, larger-than-life old-timer ruefully pass up a chance for bliss was probably too much for me to bear.
The Band's Visit
Opening Friday, March 21st