Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Band's Visit: Tons of loneliness, rendered ever so lightly

Dressed from cap to pant cuff in a spotless powder blue rarely seen these days outside of baby pajamas and vintage tuxedos, an all-male group of mostly older Egyptian musicians, practitioners of a classical style that’s entered its cultural twilight, arrive in Israel, where they’re booked to perform a modest concert. Confused, and suffering a serious linguistic handicap, they mean to go to one town and accidentally wind up in another, one so sleepy it’s practically inert. Mid-day, its citizenry are found catatonically propped up on chairs in front of what may very well be the only café. With no means of transportation available until the following day, the musicians, entirely dependent on the kindness of these locals, have no choice but to spend the night.

The café proprietor is Dina (the terrifically vivacious Ronit Elkabetz), an almond-eyed knockout divorcée somewhere in the neighbourhood of 40 who tends to survey everything with a baldly sexy, cockeyed skepticism, often with one hand on her hip. She feeds the group, then arranges accommodations for them all. With considerable, hormone-fuelled persistence, she talks the impossible gentlemanly, droopy-nosed bandleader Lieutenant-colonel Tawfiq Zacharya (Sasson Gabai) out for a night on the town. Haled (Saleh Bakri), the band’s youngest and most subordinate member and a self-styled Don Juan, meanwhile is whisked away to a cramped roller rink that serves as the town’s disco, where he plays Cyrano to a timid young nerd and his weepy blind date in a marvelous scene of purely physical comedy.

Most of the Egyptians and Israelis can at least communicate in the lingua franca of broken English –which offers a surplus of comic delights for Anglophone audiences. When Haled sings Chet Baker through Plexiglas to a pretty girl held captive in the airport’s info booth, there’s the doubled pleasure of our recognizing both the mangled spoken words and the song being sung. But central to our understanding of the scenario is the fact that everyone, to some degree, knows ‘My Funny Valentine,’ that is, they at least know the feeling, the cadence, the song’s usefulness as a seductive tool. Later, an uncomfortably assembled group huddles around a dinner table and breaks into an ensemble rendition of ‘Summertime.’ Gradually, it becomes clear that the other lingua franca spoken here is music. It can’t resolve conflicts, change anyone’s course or alleviate the banal frustrations common nearly all the characters –something one of them describes as “tons of loneliness”– but it can provide fleeting connections between strangers in the night.

The cinema of dislocation that is the melancholy-comic terrain traversed in The Band’s Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret) has found a worthy cartographer in writer/director Eran Kolirin, here making his feature debut. Previous travelers along this particular road include Aki Kaurismäki, Gus Van Sant, Wim Wenders, Sophia Coppola, Takashi Kitano and Jim Jarmusch, whose Stranger Than Paradise so emphatically subverted any exoticism once associated with the road movie a quarter century ago. The trick to charting your way through this meta-country is to light one’s gaze upon the specifics of a place while carefully rendering it not quite anywhere.
The arid Israeli backwater where the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra accidentally find themselves is imbued with a wealth of rich detail to help define it, yet it nonetheless feels like a locale that’s managed to slip off the maps: forgettable, insignificant, a footnote in a travel guide. Insignificance is of course essential to this sort of movie, which vies for its status right from the opening title card, informing us about the band’s visit before qualifying this with “not many remember this. It was not that important.”

It would be all too easy to characterize The Band’s Visit as a slavish exercise in this little dislocation subgenre, to note how it features the customarily subtle balance of cuteness and sadness while staying just a hair’s breadth away from sentimentality. The gags are deadpan, there’s a lot of walking through strange lands with luggage noisily rolling behind, plenty of your standard miscommunication via linguistic limitations, and blank Buster Keaton stares abound. All of these could be called tropes –yet any genre, however tenuously defined, has its tropes. The question is whether the tropes are displayed or discovered anew. Kolirin, with a very adult attitude toward resolution and the staying power of life’s lingering aches, manages to breathe life into these throughout. While some moments feel more vital than others, his film is genuinely unforced, genuinely sweet and man, is it funny. And very much worth a visit. 

1 comment:

Paul Matwychuk said...

Hey, JB.

I just watched this movie last night, and was as utterly charmed by it (and especially by Ronit Elkabetz's sly, sexy performance) as you were. I'll be writing up my review in the next couple of days, and I've got my work cut out for me as I figure out how to evoke its tone--sad yet not depressing, a film about loneliness that also contains so many scenes of people making tenuous human connections. It's a gem!