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Egyptian musicians' night in limbo

  • 03 July 2008
The Band's Visit: 86 minutes. Rated: M. Director: Eran Kolirin. Starring: Sasson Gabai, Ronit Elkabetz, Saleh Bakri, Khalifa Natour, Shlomi Avraham

During the opening seconds of The Band's Visit, the camera lingers on a white bus parked at an airport in Israel. After a few moments the bus trundles aside, like the rickety curtain in an amateur theatre, to reveal a line of eight men in sky blue uniform.

They are the Alexandria Police Orchestra, invited to perform at the opening of a new cultural centre. Standing at ease with pressed uniforms and starched-cotton dignity, they wait, just long enough for their patience to seem absurd. Someone has forgotten them.

From this first instance, The Band's Visit strikes a tone that is at once funny and sad. It's a delicate balance that is sustained throughout the short, understated film, which prods cross-cultural disparity for gentle humour and stirs the humanity of its simple story.

The band members find themselves stranded in a nearby, isolated township, and at the mercy of the hospitality of the staff of a shabby diner. The film subsequently focuses on the particular experiences of three of the musicians.

Conductor Tawfiq Zacharya (Gabai), softly spoken, eminently respectable and tinged with secret grief, is taken under the wing of the diner's gregarious owner, Dina (Elkabetz). It seems she views him as a potential sexual conquest, but there's affection as well. The evening they share is more intimate than a physical encounter. It provides the opportunity for Tawfiq to surrender his sadness, even if ultimately the opportunity is missed.

Young lothario Haled (Bakri) — accustomed to wooing girls with a few short bars of 'My Funny Valentine' — finds himself playing the reluctant cupid when he goes out on the town with the hapless Papi (Shlomi Avraham) and his luckless date.

Previously Haled has been both a son-figure and a rival to the band leader Tawfiq. The film's juxtaposition of their contrasting experiences reveals the complexity of their — ostensibly, merely antagonistic — feelings towards each other.

Meanwhile, veteran clarinet player and aspiring conductor Simon (Natour) intermittently ponders the concerto he had begun to write before he got married. In his host's troubled family home, he may find an unexpected ending to his interrupted masterpiece.

Promotional material describes this as a film about a 'lost band in a lost town'. It is important that the story takes place within a social