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At the Movies: The Band’s Visit ***1/2:

How do we explain that what’s ultimately most important in life are things that never seem that important at the time? At the beginning of Eran Kolirin’s film, The Band’s Visit, it is announced that nothing “important” happens in the story, even though it is about Israelis and Egyptians treating each other with kindness, trading heart-felt stories, even teaching each other about ordinary life. In another director’s hand, the film might be too corny to bear. Kolirin has such a light touch that the film is a joy to watch from beginning to end.

The Band’s Visit was gifted with some great publicity late last year when the news broke that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had rejected its entry as Israel Foreign Language submission. There was the usual outcry and complaints about the uptight and behind-the-times Oscar committee.

Funnily enough, though, while watching the film it becomes quite clear the Academy’s decision was right; the film is mostly in English as the characters use the universal language to communicate with each other.

It is unfortunate, though, for the film that it didn’t get a proper Oscar run, as it is one not to be missed. Now it will have to compete with every other film at the multiplex without the added allure of being the Oscar frontrunner, which it may have been. Nonetheless, this is a gently moving tale of lonely people who cannot connect in any permanent way so they drift past each other, barely touching.

The Band’s Visit was wildly popular in Europe, already getting critics’ attention, winning a critics’ prize at Cannes, among other accolades. It reaches our country amid much buzz and praise, all well deserved.

The film opens with eight Egyptian members of the Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra standing in a row. Their pressed uniforms are baby blue and stand out awkwardly against the dull browns in the background. They are immediately lost, obviously out of place. The band is scheduled to perform at an Arab culture event. After a few failed attempts at reaching officials to give them location instructions and directions, the band gives up and takes a bus. They end up lost, in the middle of nowhere.

Somehow they end up in a very small desert town with nothing in it, no “Arab culture, no Israeli culture, no culture at all.” They are told by a fiery owner of a café that there aren’t any more busses out of town. The woman, Dina, invites them to stay with her and her friends after feeding them. Dina is immediately drawn to the band’s conductor Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai), though he couldn’t be any less interested in her – either that or he has shut himself off to such a degree that no one can pry him back open.

The band crams into the humble abodes of the kind folks, and it is one night in their lives where they must get along. But they do more than that; they communicate in memorable, perhaps even life-changing ways. It never feels corny or that it’s over-stepped its bounds.

All of the cast members are excellent, but Ronit Elkabetz as Dina steals the show. A dark beauty and antithesis of what many of us think of as the Middle Eastern woman, Dina is strong, sexy, sexual, and independent. Her fondness for Tewfiq goes unrequited and one gets the feeling that this desert flower has gone unappreciated for too long.

If The Band’s Visit has any visible flaws, it’s that it is too short. These characters become so likable one finds them too alluring to let go of so soon.

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