The universal language, it seems, is not music.

The Band’s Visit

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            “The Band’s Visit” arrives in America wrapped in European recognition. What to expect? Knowing the Egyptian band becomes stranded in Israel, perhaps a riff on cross cultural difficulties with eventual triumph for the universal language of music? How typical of an American movie reviewer to expect that, and how wrong.

            First, the visual. The Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra lands in Israel. Eight men in sky blue police uniforms stand on the white concrete just this side of the endless white desert. Director Eran Kolirin has even left people out of this sight, all the better to tell us that his movie will be spare and stark. Knowing he must do something, anything, their leader, Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai), starts toward the terminal. The eight musicians follow in single file, each towing a black wheeled suitcase, some pulling their instruments, also wheeled. How lucky the ones who play a flute instead of a bass fiddle. Eight bright blue figures against white concrete and white sand in a nearly empty world – that’s not just the landscape; it’s the sustaining premise of the whole film.

            Tewfiq sends his newest recruit, tall and skinny Khaled (Saleh Bakri) to inquire about the next bus to their destination. Somewhere in this tri-lingual transaction, something is mispronounced so that the band ends up stranded again in a bleak desert town. But they catch a big piece of luck this time in the form of Dina (Ronit Elkabetz, in a beautiful performance of both vitality and resignation), proprietor of a café as empty and bleak as their surroundings. Dina arranges their overnight accommodations – in the café and with a friend after reminding them, “no more bus, no hotel, no Israeli culture, no Egyptian culture, no culture at all.” In awkward expressions in the several languages, the three make their way across emotional borders to touching moments of understanding. Wary of offending the others, each reaches out in gentle formality. But the connections are never verbalized; they are sometimes understood, sometimes missed.

            Watch for a scene of the wonderful Khaled tutoring a young man in the ways of understanding the needs of his girlfriend, and again for a beautiful scene of a band member reliving his own sadness as he studies a baby in a crib. Director Kolirin is so frugal with words and gestures that we stare intensely at these characters to find the meaning of the movie, and finally we do. The universal language, it seems, is not music (there is very little of it here), but loneliness. Director Kolirin takes his broom and sweeps aside all the debris of daily life along with the subtleties of language and culture that might distract us from his central premise: everyone is alone. What remains on his stark canvas are human beings and their controlled emotions struggling to connect in some way with each other, to step into another’s aloneness or to bring someone into their own.


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