Sharply observed and agreeably acted, "The Band's Visit" doesn't soar to giddy heights, but it moves along and holds one's attention. Eran Kolirin built this movie on a small conceit -- an Egyptian police octet is stranded in a backwater Israeli town for a couple of days and cross-cultural friendships begin to grow like seedlings in a Dixie cup.
Kolirin opens the movie with a great visual joke that unexpectedly reveals the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra. Their robin's-egg uniforms are the opposite of desert camo; they couldn't be more conspicuous if they were riding camels. Uneasy and unable to speak Hebrew, they have arrived for the opening of an Arab cultural center. But there's no welcoming committee, local authorities are brusque and one Israeli settlement name sounds an awful lot like another, so they wind up in a dusty Nowheresville in need of accommodations. The group's conductor and senior officer, Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai), approaches the idlers at the local bar to explain his awkward situation. They regard him with bemused suspicion and appreciation: This is the most interesting turn of events in a long time. There is no Arab cultural center here, they explain, no Israeli cultural center, in fact no culture at all. And the band is stuck overnight until the next day's bus.
The visitors and the locals communicate in English, which Tewfiq garlands with perfumed phrases and elaborate formalities. His impeccable speech reflects a life of rules to be maintained at all costs. The band's young wolf trumpeter, Haled (Saleh Bakri), uses his English to hit on cute Israeli girls. He recommends baby-making classics with a carnal leer, purring, "Dew yeww likeh Chet Bakkker?"
Ronit Elkabetz plays Dina, an Israeli bar hostess who sees the band's dilemma as an opportunity to put on her good dress and take Tewfiq to the community center; if her inattentive lover sees her with the dignified gentleman, so much the better. The other players are parceled out to various families, where they are welcomed with polite incomprehension that warms a bit as the evening goes on. You will not be shocked to learn that a fussy Israeli baby is lulled to sleep with an Arabic lullaby.
Flirty Dina and reserved Tewfiq talk about music and love and life in the diner; she longs for the romantic Egyptian movies that used to play on Israeli TV and confesses a youthful crush on Omar Sharif. Haled, the swinger of the group, joyrides to the roller disco with some rowdy teenagers, where he helps an Israeli wallflower puts the moves on a girl. It's a striking image of cross-cultural cooperation.
Kolirin's deadpan flair for visual comedy softens his message-mongering about our fundamental humanity and the irrelevance of religious or political divisions and boundaries. Tewfiq gradually discloses the heartbreak that has made him such a perfectionist, but only minutes earlier he was gazing with politely concealed dismay at the cafeteria's attempted falafel. "The Band's Visit" is a low-stakes affair but it succeeds on the strength of its unsentimental tenderness.
Colin Covert 612-673-7186