An Egyptian band gets stranded in a nowhere Israeli desert town in “The Band’s Visit,” a warm and delightful take on cross-cultural relations that proves that sometimes a light touch is just what’s needed to address serious topics. Novice helmer Eran Kolirin has a playful eye for compositions and a fine touch with thespers, occasionally playing on the borders of cute but reining in before going to the wrong side of sentiment. An audience charmer that’s sure to sweep Israel — and Egypt too if allowed to open — offshore arms will be more than welcoming.
When their hosts fail to turn up at the airport, the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Band take a bus to the town they’re supposed to be playing. Not only isn’t it much of a place, it’s also not their place, but the last bus has gone and they don’t know where they’re supposed to go. To quell grumblings already afoot among members, conductor Tawfiq (Sasson Gabai) hesitantly accepts a suggestion from cafe manager Dina (Ronit Elkabetz) to stay the night.
Tawfiq and handsome ladies’ man Khaled (Saleh Bakri) bunk together at Dina’s. She’s not the kind of woman Tawfiq is used to: wry, with an outward, playful self-confidence and undisguised sexuality. The awkward, melancholy band leader reluctantly accepts Dina’s invitation to dinner, where her needy flirtation and his gentlemanly sadness form a bridge of understanding.
Meanwhile, Khaled tags on to the socially awkward Papi (Shlomi Avraham) for a night at a roller disco, culminating in a hilarious lesson on how to treat women. Other band members, headed by second-in-command Simon (Khalifa Natour), stay with Itzik (Rubi Moscovich), leading to tensions with his family and revelations about fulfillment. Balanced by a very funny rendition around the dinner table of “Summertime,” these scenes have something profound to say, but never feel heavy-handed.
By pic’s end it’s not just that the Israelis and Egyptians have learned something about each other, they’ve learned something about themselves. Mastering these lessons without becoming artificially rosy-eyed would defeat a lesser talent, but both in script and direction Kolirin proves he’s more than up to the task. His picaresque humor and witty style are a joy to behold, as is his respect for all quirks of character.
Thesping is terrific, with everyone in perfect tune. Acting powerhouse Elkabetz displays a wonderful comic charm, sardonic yet warm and ultimately vulnerable — her head keeps moving slightly in a swagger that’s more protective armor than artifice. She and Gabai play perfectly together, his shy eyes almost afraid of her challenging, affectionate gaze. Newcomer Bakri, too, has a great flare for timing and exudes buckets of uncomplicated charm.
Visuals are a particular pleasure: Kolirin has a witty sense of composition, unexpectedly passing people in and out of the frame to maximum, but not overdone, humorous effect. The band’s light blue uniforms, contrasted against the desert, are ideal visual reminders that they’re out of place, and yet as pic makes clear, there’s every reason in the world for them to be there. Music, that ideal bringer-together of cultures, beautifully contributes to the theme.