A film of beguiling simplicity, Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit (2007) is a moving ode to the craft of storytelling in the purest sense, exemplifying with every frame the old adage of how a picture is worth a thousand words.
When an Egyptian police band – the Alexandria Ceremonial Orchestra – mistakenly stumbles into the remote Israeli desert town of Bet Hatikva, they’re marooned for 24 hours awaiting the next bus to perform at their original destination, Pet Hatikva.
The eight-piece band is led by the reserved and dignified Tawfiq (Sasson Gabai), a man whose reticence, borne of humility, is faintly alluring to restaurant owner Dina (Ronit Elkabetz); craving distraction from the static emptiness of life in this place she offers her home and that of her friend to these curiously attired strangers whose presence marks a welcome and exotic alteration in the landscape of this place that time has forgotten.
Thriving on small but meaningful vignettes, Kolirin’s film, which he also wrote, is rich with subtle characterisation, transporting us to a world far away and yet not dissimilar to our own at all. The heart of his film is its seamless and varied observations of these people, allowing small moments to gather weight in an inspired accumulation of minutiae. With English as their common ground, these people discover the universality by which the means of communication, no matter how meagre, can flourish.
How Kolirin manages an elliptical, ethereal suffusion of, simultaneously, broken dreams and a pervasive optimism, is nothing short of remarkable. Somehow there’s an austerity, and a surprising gentleness, collated from this inhospitable land, where a look or gesture is used to convey more than mere words.
The acting is flawless, especially Elkabetz as the defiant and independent Dina, a woman whose boundless spirit and force of personality will never allow her to dissolve into the dead heart of this desert wasteland. There’s an almost mystical allure created by her presence, leaving you magnetized and hanging on her every word.
Gabai as the modest and decent Tawfiq is her perfect complement giving a subtle and moving portrayal; lending great support are Khalifa Natour as Simon, the timid sometime conductor whose unfinished concerto is a source of despair, and Saleh Bakri as the headstrong Khaled whose night out with some of the locals at their roller-skating rink and disco produces some sublimely brilliant scenes.
The Band’s Visit is that rare gift: a cinematic model of restraint in its writing and execution, full of compellingly fateful quirks, and a clarity of vision you can’t help admiring and achieved with the lightest touch. Not once does Kolirin’s film require the crutch of bold, grandiose statements to convey his humanistic intentions. Here is a true cinematic gem, infused with a poignancy that lingers like a spell: part sadness, part nostalgia, part quiet desperation. In brief, a magnificent ‘small’ film to savour again and again.