I wasn't wild about seeing The Band's Visit. From the publicity materials, it looked like another one of those watered-down, Hallmarky foreign-language films that have slowly seeped into the American box office, stuff like Like Water for Chocolate, Il Postino or Life Is Beautiful that appeals to wide audiences without ever rising above pure fluff. (Many of these films fell under Harvey Weinstein's scissors, and were each similarly shaped according to his commercial instincts.) But happily The Band's Visit has its own rhythms and personality apart from all this. It's a crowd-pleaser, to be sure, but an expertly crafted and hugely rewarding one.

Written and directed by Eran Kolirin, making his feature debut, the film is a member of that great, but underused genre: disparate personalities thrown together by unexpected circumstances, like Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944), Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men (1957) or John Hughes' The Breakfast Club (1985). The Band's Visit sets up its visual displacement right away, as the eight members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Band from Egypt wait at an Israeli airport, on an almost abandoned, sun-baked platform, vainly hoping that their hosts will pick them up. They stand, starch-stiff in their immaculate uniforms, silent instruments crated at their feet. The leader, Tawfiq (Sasson Gabai, also in Rambo III -- no kidding) decides to take action. He orders the band's youngest member, a tall ladies man, Khaled (Saleh Bakri) to get directions. But in speaking to an attractive girl behind a counter, he gets the wrong pronunciation and the band winds up in a desolate town on the far side of the country.


By the time the mistake is discovered, there are no more busses for the rest of the day. Fortunately, there's a café. Its loose, laid-back manager Dina (Ronit Elkabetz, from Late Marriage and Amos Gitai's Alila) offers to help them out for the night. The eight members split up to stay with Dina and her friends in their small dwellings; Tawfiq and Khaled end up with Dina herself. The sensuous and playful Dina invites the sad, withdrawn Tawfiq out for dinner, while Khaled ends up tagging along on a disastrous double-date to a roller disco. Another band member is charged with phoning the Egyptian embassy, but must share the public phone with a local who waits -- every night -- for a call from his girlfriend. Tawfiq's right-hand man Simon (Khalifa Natour), who has waited years for his own chance to conduct, learns his own life lessons while staying with the out-of-work Itzik (Rubi Moscovich).

Of course, Kolirin is setting up a parable about Israeli-Arab relations, but the magic of The Band's Visit is that all these situations and relationships dance right on the edge of cutesy and just a hair's breadth away from sentimental. It takes a great deal of skill to strike this balance and effectively pull it off; it's perhaps even more difficult than pulling off a complicated three-hour epic with thousands of extras, props, costumes and effects. You can see just how close Kolirin comes to disaster in some of the movie's publicity stills, with characters posing in silly, joyous ways. But a closer look reveals how completely Kolirin has understood his subjects and their physical surroundings. When Dina and Tawfiq are onscreen together, they're like apples and oranges; he's rigid and emotionally closed, while she's limpid and invitingly sensual. She flirts with him and he politely resists. But Kolirin keeps these physical attributes firmly within the characters and their personalities; they do not turn into cartoons merely to illustrate Kolirin's point.

Khaled throws an interesting bend in this straight-across opposites-attract dynamic. He's much more like Dina than his bandmate, confident and sensual. And Tawfiq and Khaled have fought just previous to their rescue, with Khaled's membership in the band threatened. Once again the director lays out this touchy dynamic in very interesting, visual ways. What makes the film such a great import is that the Egyptians and Israelis mainly use English to converse; the film, or at least the print I saw, provides subtitles, but only for those unaccustomed to thick accents. Likewise, Khaled likes to use Chet Baker as part of his pickup routine, complete with a sexy, crooned version of "My Funny Valentine."

But the overall effect of the English dialogue is that it elevates the characters to the same kind of new level of politeness. They relate to each other as outsiders, rather than as one group visiting another group. This also throws into relief the simple, but civilized concepts of being invited and visiting. It's very touching watching the characters regard one another and interact with one another with tentative curiosity; they almost spur one another on to better behavior. Sometimes when a guest leaves, there's a sense of relief; we can go back to relaxing and being ourselves. But when The Band's Visit ends we feel refreshed and fulfilled.

(For another take, see James Rocchi's TIFF review.)