For many Americans, life in and the people from the Middle East is an abstraction, something that takes up a few minutes' worth of air time on the evening news or a talk show. Amid all the unrelentingly negative news, it's hard to get a sense of the day-to-day lives of those many millions of Middle Easterners living in Israel, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. What must seem utterly banal to those living in the Middle East can fascinate American film audiences -- just as American documentaries and intimate character studies can provide illuminating insight into an equally foreign country and culture. Sometimes, taking a moment to simply appreciate that we are all human beings can reveal a plethora of intangible riches.
Writer/director Eran Kolirin's The Band's Visit is little more than 24 hours in the lives of the Alexandria Police Orchestra, a once-proud Egyptian performance organization now struggling to fund its trips and pay its members meager wages. They've just arrived in Israel, looking for the town of Bet Hatikva, in which they'll perform at the opening of an Arab cultural center. One ill-advised bus ride later, the orchestra, led by the stoic Colonel Tawfiq Zacharya (Sasson Gabai), finds themselves in a similarly named Israeli village, albeit one that's far more sleepy and desolate than it should be. Stuck for the time being, the elegantly dressed orchestra members must make themselves comfortable, meet the locals and wait out the inconvenience.
Kolirin takes what, on its surface, would seem a deadly dull set-up -- starchy Egyptian orchestra gets stuck in quasi-backwater Israeli village and low-key hijinks ensue -- and invests it with a bittersweet poignancy and occasionally, liberal doses of slapstick humor to create a wholly engaging portrait of cultures struggling to understand and accept. The Band's Visit unfolds over the course of 24 hours, as the orchestra arrives in Israel and sets out upon their (mis)adventure, concluding the following morning. In that time, most of the men learn quite a bit about themselves, perhaps the Colonel most of all, who shares a tentative evening with Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), a local restauranteur who befriends the conductor and his performers.
The cast is excellent -- Saleh Bakri (Haled), in particular, shines throughout, particularly during his "date coaching" scene -- and conveys a palpable sense of authenticity. Since none of these actors are well-known Stateside, an air of cinema verite grounds Kolirin's film. The Band's Visit will probably move too slowly for some, but they might be the sort that don't pay too much attention to the world at large anyway. This is a film meant to be enjoyed little by little, as the tiny details and mundane realities of existence make themselves known. The Band's Visit is a touching slice of life, a look at a world altogether different from ours -- yet very much the same.
The Band's Visit looks vibrant and very clean in its 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, displaying no discernible flaws. (The case says it was "mastered in high definition.") Black levels are appropriately inky, while the Alexandria Police Orchestra's sky blue uniforms pop off the screen and the dusty, drab Israeli villages look detailed, rather than being sandy, blurry mush.
A mixture of Hebrew, Arabic and English comprises the Dolby Digital 5.1 track and all three languages are clearly heard and understood (the Hebrew and Arabic dialogue is helpfully subtitled in English; kudos to Sony to employing the nice bold yellow subtitles) without any distortion, drop-out or other aural flaw. The English subtitles, which are optional, are the only ones offered here.
Slender supplements here: A 14 minute, three second behind-the-scenes featurette "'The Band's Visit': Making the Fairy Tale" (presented in non-anamorphic widescreen and in Hebrew with forced English subtitles), a photo gallery with 31 images, the film's theatrical trailer (presented in anamorphic widescreen) and previews for When Did You Last See Your Father?, Married Life, Persepolis, Brick Lane, The Jane Austen Book Club, Steep, Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains, My Kid Could Paint That, Vitus and Moliere.
The Band's Visit will probably move too slowly for some, but they might be the sort that don't pay too much attention to the world at large anyway. This is a film meant to be enjoyed little by little, as the tiny details and mundane realities of existence make themselves known. The Band's Visit is a touching slice of life, a look at a world altogether different from ours -- yet very much the same. Recommended.