Godard famously said cinema is truth at 24 frames per second; Michael Haneke (director of the wickedly playful Funny Games in theatres now) says a feature film is 24 lies per second; Eran Kolirin, the Israeli writer and director of The Band’s Visit, hasn’t put forth his own version of Godard, but I’ll do it for him – motion pictures are emotion, 24 frames per second. Insofar as cinema can encapsulate and embody emotion – extracting it from actors, distilling it through cinematography, preserving it through editing, and serving it up on a flickering, fleeting tray – then The Band’s Visit does not just hint at longing, suggest longing, or effuse longing: it is longing.
Eight Egyptian policemen, the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, arrive in Israel to perform at the inauguration of an Arab culture center. Miscommunication between the young trumpet player, Haled (Saleh Bakri), and a cute airport information desk attendant lands the band in the wrong town, a town small enough to have one bus stop and one bus trip per day. It also has Ronit Elkabetz as Dina, the owner of a small restaurant. The band leader, Lieutenant-Colonel Tawfiq Zacharya (Sasson Gabai), is thus compelled to accept Dina’s offer to put the band up for the night.
If this were an American film, a freight train of unstoppable hilarity would ensue involving rabbis, mistaken identities, a camel and the business end of a tuba. Instead, Kolirin takes us deeply, sharply, painfully close to his characters – reckless Haled, trapped Dina, repressed Tawfiq, and his lonely second-in-command Simon (Khalifa Natour) – and stays there for 89 minutes. It doesn’t feel short. And it doesn’t sell us short, either; part of the joy of watching The Band’s Visit is acknowledging Kolirin’s implicit trust that we will go for a ride without popcorn moments or expensive thrills.
Shai Goldman’s cinematography tells the story, wordlessly, in plaintive, static shots of the dusty half-desert, half-deserted landscape. Through his lens, we see the uneasy truce between the elements and man-made encroachments; two-pronged streetlamps are cacti on the road, the empty streets like so many dry riverbeds. This is a town timeless in its stagnation, where one young man waits by a pay phone every night for his girlfriend to call, where a wrought-iron bench on the sidewalk constitutes a park, where everyone is friends, enemies or lovers with everyone else – the characters do not so much happen upon this place as move inexorably towards it. Call it Loneliness, Israel.
Paired with Doron Ashkenazi’s costumes, the film becomes a series of tableaux, eight uniformed men clad head-to-toe in the unblemished azure of a clear sky set against a bleached palette of beige and brown, the canvas of dust, desert and dereliction. The brilliant light blue uniforms lift right off the screen, even when the men stand still, as they often are, waiting for Tawfiq’s next instruction.
Sasson Gabai plays Tawfiq as a tragic hero, worlds of sadness behind his bristle moustache and watery eyes. Aristotle said a man doesn’t become a hero until he can see the root of his own downfall; Tawfiq has seen the root of his downfall for years, and when it is revealed at the nadir of the film, the camera holds on Gabai, and we feel the man’s barricades collapsing one by one.
Ronit Elkabetz (you may remember her from the 2001 Israeli dramedy Late Marriage) is at her pulchritudinous best playing Dina, a woman hurt, a woman all the more desperate for human connection and happiness the farther they slip into the distance. She lives, day in, day out, in this spit-stop of a town and she needs the band, and Tawfiq, as much as he, and the band, need her. If Betty Grable was America’s bombshell during World War II – blonde, bold, beautiful – then Ronit Elkabetz is the pin-up girl of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – dark, complicated, cryptic.
Saleh Bakri shows less range as Haled, but demonstrates his keen comic timing in a touching, and touch-heavy, seduction scene halfway through the film. His brash, boyish good looks should lead him to leading man parts in short order. Khalifa Natour, a fine actor, is given little to work with here except a character sketch – “unhappy musician” (and isn’t that redundant?) – so his scenes lack the emotional punch of the rest of the movie.
Longing requires absence, and Kolirin knows how to wield wordlessness; minutes pass without dialogue as characters grapple with their individual demons. In these scenes, Arik Leibovitch’s editing does the heavy lifting, whether assembling a series of point-of-view shots to externalize a character’s thoughts or, conversely, staying with a shot of the actor beyond the first impulse to cut away. Kolirin is aware of the versatility and universality of body language; a kiss is a kiss no matter how hopelessly lost you are in a foreign country; a late-night glass of wine with a beautiful woman is an invitation in Egypt, Israel, and around the world.
As The Band’s Visit approaches its denouement, when in Hollywood films the boy gets the girl, the villain dies, the hero finds the treasure, and plotlines neatly dovetail into a bowtie, it becomes clear that Kolirin is not susceptible to tidy solutions or romance. You may even wonder, for a moment, why you bothered to watch the film at all, why Kolirin bothered to make it. Where’s the arc? The progress? The point? And then the lights come on, and with an exhilarting rush you are grateful to be around people, to be lifted from the public solitude of the darkened theatre, to not be lonely anymore, at 24 frames per second.
The Band’s Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret)
Written and directed by Eran Kolirin.
With Sasson Gabai, Ronit Elkabetz, Saleh Bakri and Khalifa Natour.
89 minutes. Comedy/Drama.