Written and directed by Israeli filmmaker Eran Kolirin, The Band's Visit has many graces you might not expect to find in a film from a first-time director: A meticulous sense of timing, a gift for small-scale naturalism, a dry sense of humor, a warm sense of humanity. The Band's Visit hangs on a pretty slender thread in terms of plotting -- a visiting police band has flown in for a performance and found themselves abandoned, left to fend for themselves, winding up in the wrong town and dependent on the kindness of strangers. But a few simple facts are going to complicate matters: The band's from Egypt; they're stranded in Israel.
Kolirin's musicians are a motley crew; the leader, Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai) is a clipped and courtly gentleman, dedicated to the orchestra's work and worth; his second-in-command, Simon (Khalifia Natour) is frustrated with how his own original compositions are blocked; sleepy-eyed Haled (Saleh Bakri) is the band's newest member, who seems interested in the band only insofar as it lets him dodge other duties on the force and meet women. They're not exactly a band of brothers, and their normal tensions and rivalries are exacerbated by the constantly present but constantly unspoken stress and strain of being lost in a nation that their nation's been to war with. ...
But the band manages to connect with a restaurateur, Dina (Ronit Elkabetz); she manages to find them places to stay, helps them figure out where they should be, as opposed to where they are. (Tewfiq: "We're here to perform for the opening of the new Arab Cultural Center. ..." Dina: "There's no Cultural Center here ... not Arab culture, not Israeli culture ... no culture at all. ...") And we follow the band during their brief interlude: Tewfiq and Dina connect, both feeling as if the passing of years has left them behind; Simon's stay with the town's single cab driver leads to a revelation; Haled heads off to the roller disco and gives a young man a crash-course in meeting women. Haled's not much of a seducer -- his repeated come-on to women is "You like Chet Baker?" -- but he's Cary Grant compared to his hesitant chaperone.
Kolirin's not interested in political speeches or heartfelt monologues here; instead, The Band's Visit plays out on a smaller scale. Kolirin's film would be meaningless without the broader historical and political backdrop that flavors every moment of the story, but he chooses to sketch scenes of connection, not conflict. The Egyptian musicians and Israeli villagers meet in a place where awkward pauses are the universal language, and everyone's united in their imagined inadequacy. The Band's Visit doesn't sugar-coat matters or take the easy way out, either; while the film demonstrates the beauty and universal nature of music, it certainly doesn't suggest music's a magical panacea that can cross every gulf and heal every wound.
Kolirin's also got a taste for the absurd -- the vision of the band, resplendent in their light-blue polyester uniforms, trundling their wheeled luggage across the desert is subtly and deeply funny -- but never at anyone's expense. He can craft a physical comedy bit that builds to a great payoff, but he can also show us a graceful quiet scene of two people talking, the quiet intimacy of (as Sinatra would say) strangers in the night. Gabai, Bakri and Elkabetz all deliver strong performances -- saying volumes with a few lines, quickly establishing who their characters are, giving us an immediate sense of personality and life even as they're capable of surprising us. Kolirin's not afraid of space, or silence, and that sense of room and quiet allows the story to unfold gracefully.
The Band's Visit may be a bit too small-scale to flourish outside of the rarefied atmosphere of a film festival or an art house -- it's hard to imagine its gentle tone being heard above the bustling marketplace of the modern multiplex -- but it nonetheless has its charms. Kolirin's debut demonstrates an understanding of both sympathy and comedy, framed in elegant shots and rhythmic scenes, with a terrific score working alongside the larger story. The Band's Visit plays out remarkably like the event it depicts: Unexpected, but more than welcome.