An unlikely masterpiece

In 2007, an Israeli film maker produced a little gem about an Egyptian band being lost in Israel. The movie. The Band's Visit, vanished for years until it miraculousky reappeared on Broadway as a musical which went on to win multiple awards.
The Band's Visit is one of four musicals in Broadway history to win the unofficial "Big Six" Tony Awards, which include Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score, Best Actor in a Musical, Best Actress in a Musical, and Best Direction of a Musical. It won the 2019 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album.
in a stroke of genius, someone at Palm Beach's FourArts added it to their Films on Friday series in November 2019.
Some found it brilliant. Others were less impressed I found it fascinating.
Here are two reviews which I recommend you read AFTER seeing the movie
and making up your own mind.

Roger Ebert March 6, 2008

THE EIGHT MEN wear sky-blue uniforms with gold braid on the shoulders. They look like extras in an opera. They dismount from a bus in the middle of nowhere and stand uncertainly on the sidewalk. They are near a highway interchange, leading no doubt to where they’d rather be. Across the street is a small cafe. Regarding them are two bored layabouts and a sadly, darkly beautiful woman.

They are a band from Egypt, the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra. Their leader, a severe man with a perpetually dour expression, crosses the street and asks the woman for directions to the Arab Cultural Center. She looks at him as if he stepped off a flying saucer. “Here there is no Arab culture,” she says. “Also, no Israeli culture. Here there is no culture at all.”

They are in the middle of the Israeli desert, having taken the wrong bus to the wrong destination. Another bus will not come until tomorrow. “The Band’s Visit” begins with this premise, which could supply the makings of a comedy, and turns into a quiet, sympathetic film about the loneliness that surrounds us. Oh, and there is some comedy, after all.

cafe owner Dina (Ronit Elkabetz)
and bandleader Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai).

The town they have arrived at is lacking in interest even for those who live there. It is seemingly without activity. The bandleader, named Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai), asks if there is a hotel. The woman, Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), is amused. No hotel.

They communicate in careful, correct English; she more fluent, he weighing every word. Tewfiq explains their dilemma.They are to play a concert tomorrow at the opening of a new Arab cultural center in a place has that almost, but not quite, the same name as the place they are in.

Tewfiq starts out to lead a march down the highway in the correct direction. There is some dissent, especially from the tall young troublemaker Haled (Saleh Bakri). He complains that they have not eaten. After some awkward negotiations (they have little Israeli currency), the Egyptians are served soup and bread in Dina’s cafe. It is strange, how the static, barren, lifeless nature of the town seeps into the picture, even though the writer-director Eran Kolirin uses no establishing shots or any effort at all to show us anything beyond the cafe — and later, Dina’s apartment and an almost empty restaurant.

Dina offers to put up Tewfiq and Haled at her apartment, and tells the young layabouts (who seem permanently anchored to their chairs outside her cafe) that they must take the others home to their families. And then begins a long, quiet night of guarded revelations, shared isolation and tentative tenderness. Dina is tough but not invulnerable. Life has given her little that she hoped for. Tewfiq is a man with an invisible psychic weight on his shoulders. Haled, under everything, is an awkward kid. They go for a snack at the restaurant, its barren tables reaching away under bright lights, and Dina points out a man who comes in with his family. A sometime lover of hers, she tells Tewfiq. Even adultery seems weary here.

When the three end up back at Dina’s apartment, where she offers them wine, the evening settles down into resignation. It is clear that Dina feels tender toward Tewfiq, that she can see through his timid reserve to the good soul inside. But there is no movement. Later, when he makes a personal revelation, it is essentially an apology. The movie avoids what we might expect, a meeting of the minds, and gives us instead a sharing of quiet desperation.

As Dina and Twefiq, Ronit Elkabetz and Sasson Gabai bring great fondness and amusement to their characters. She is pushing middle age, he is being pushed by it. It is impossible for this night to lead to anything in their future lives. But it could lead to a night to remember.

Gabai plays the bandleader as so repressed or shy or wounded that he seems closed inside himself. As we watch Elkabetz putting on a new dress for the evening and inspecting herself in the mirror, we see not vanity but hope. Throughout the evening, we note her assertion, her confidence, her easily assumed air of independence. Yet when she gazes into the man’s eyes, she sighs with regret and mentions that as a girl she loved the Omar Sharif movies that played daily on Israeli TV, but play no more.

There are some amusing interludes. A band member plays the first few notes of a sonata he has not finished (after years). A bandmate calls him Schubert. A local man keeps solitary vigil by a pay phone, waiting for a call from the girl he loves. He has an insistent way of showing his impatience when another uses the phone.

In the morning, the band reassembles and leaves. “The Band’s Visit” has not provided any of the narrative payoffs we might have expected, but has provided something more valuable: An interlude involving two “enemies,” Arabs and Israelis, that shows them both as only ordinary people with ordinary hopes, lives and disappointments. It has also shown us two souls with rare beauty.


The New York Times DEC. 7, 2007
in the Israeli desert, the eight Egyptian members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra look a bit like a joke in search of a punch line. If “The Band’s Visit” were any other kind of film — a little more pat, say, and rather less knowing — these eight souls might quickly transform into mere props in a small-scale sermon about Middle East man’s humanity to Middle East man, minus the politics of course.

“The Band’s Visit,” the first feature by the Israeli writer and director Eran Kolirin, flirts recklessly with obviousness, cuteness too. This sweet-and-sour comedy opens with the band, which has traveled to Israel to perform at an Arab cultural center, arriving at an airport without a welcoming committee. Dressed in nearly identical uniforms and smart caps, their nut-brown skin working a vivid, chromatic contrast with the robin’s-egg blue of their costumes, the men enter the film in silence, immobilized by professional reserve or perhaps just bewilderment. For the orchestra’s unsmiling leader, Tewfiq — the magnificently sober Sasson Gabai — the initial lack of a welcome will prove to be only the first bump on an increasingly rough and rutted road.

A few phone calls and one bus ride later, the band has arrived in an Israeli town, the wrong Israeli town, having successfully journeyed from forgotten to mislaid. There, amid the dust and the wind, the Egyptians meet a handful of curious (and agonizingly bored) Israelis who, with degrees of easy and grudging hospitality, offer them shelter, food, distraction, engagement, a few nips of booze, some shaky turns around a roller-skating rink and curious, fleeting companionship. Amid the awkward conversations (spoken in lightly halting and fluid English), the even more uncomfortable silences, bits of music and some nicely executed physical comedy, the Egyptians and the Israelis circle one another warily. Love doesn’t exactly bloom in this desert, but a sense of unarticulated longing does.

There’s something gently comical about the contrast between the Egyptians’ gravely masculine faces and the prettiness of those blue costumes, especially when they’re lined up like French schoolgirls (or ducklings). Mr. Kolirin wrings even more visual humor from this contrast by placing the men in the center of the image and ensuring that they don’t move for several beats, which locates them in spatial and existential isolation. It’s a facile, familiar movie trick, and Mr. Kolirin comes close to wearing it out before the band even leaves the airport, largely because massing the men in this fashion threatens to diminish their individuality. But it’s a clever stratagem too, because the comedy eases you into the story and obscures the currents of seriousness swirling under the film’s surface.

Mr. Kolirin, it emerges, is wrenching comedy out of intense melancholia. Much of that melancholy involves Tewfiq; the band’s roguish violinist, Haled (Saleh Bakri, smooth as glass); and an Israeli restaurant owner, Dina (the great Ronit Elkabetz), a brusque, untamed beauty who offers the two shelter. (The other band members bed down elsewhere.) Over the course of a long, peripatetic evening, these three will unite and separate, fumble and parry. Finally they will reunite in Dina’s apartment, where, as they sit wearily around a table, Mr. Kolirin will cut from one face to the next in tight close-up. Despite their tentative, sometimes tender exchanges, the three remain essentially alone, an isolation underscored by the shallow depth of field that leaves only their faces in poignant focus.

The terminal loneliness that haunts this scene may be universal, but Mr. Kolirin also seems to be saying that a specific loneliness haunts Israel as well. At one point Dina blurts out to Tewfiq that she and her family used to love watching Egyptian movies on television. The streets of Israel, she says, her voice swelling, were empty because everyone else was watching too. But that was then, and now Dina and the rest of these Israeli townspeople sit in this seemingly barren land with its pregnant silences and wait. Surrounded by desert, a few longingly invoke the sea, summoning a desire, but for what? Mr. Kolirin, I think, suggests that this longing is for something the poet Marcia Falk calls the “Eternal wellspring of peace.”

What Did Other Critics Think?