Cultural exchanges do not always make the noise generated by the New York Philharmonic’s recent visit to North Korea. When the Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra, a troupe of eight anxious Egyptian musicians, arrives in Israel, neither an official welcoming committee nor eager fans show up to greet them at the airport. In fact, no one meets them, and the strangers, clad in outlandish uniforms, are forced to make their own way through alien terrain. The leader of the band, Tawfiq Zacharya (Gabai), a doleful gentleman who bears himself like a military commandant, orders one of his musicians to arrange transportation to the Arab cultural center that invited them to perform. Because Khaled (Bakri) speaks no Hebrew and is far from fluent in English, they end up taking a bus not to bustling Petach Tikvah, near Tel Aviv, but rather to Beit Hatikvah, a desolate settlement in the barren Negev. The only sign of life in Beit Hatikvah is Dina (Elkabetz), the ripe proprietor of a forlorn café. And, when they ask her where the Arab cultural center is, she replies that not only does her town lack an Arab cultural center: “There is no culture here.”
The Band’s Visit was originally the Israeli nominee for the 2007 foreign-language Oscar. However, it was replaced by Beaufort when the selection committee was informed (reportedly by someone connected with Beaufort) that the film did not fulfill the requirement that less than half of the dialogue be in English. Indeed, the fact that English is spoken by everyone, poorly, as a foreign language, is essential to the film’s exquisitely droll comedy of miscommunication. Because it is too late to catch the only bus out, the band is forced to spend the night in dreary Beit Hatikvah. Because the town lacks any hotel, they stay in spare rooms in two private flats, struggling to converse in English with their Israeli hosts. One of the funniest and most endearing moments in the film occurs when Egyptians and Israelis sitting around a dinner table croon a rendition of “Summertime” so awful that the very thought of transposing “An American in Paris” to Beit Hatikvah would cause posthumous agony to composer George Gershwin.
The living is not easy. Dina, a free spirit who has hardened herself to solitude, is attracted to her bungling, unexpected visitors. She almost succeeds in breaking down the barriers that Tawfiq, a widower burdened by guilt over his son’s death and out of sync with a world indifferent to classical Arab music, has erected around himself. By stranding eight Egyptians in an Israeli town, director Eran Kolirin provides a canvas for his deft analysis of character. The lonely people on his palette include a Chet Baker fan, a stymied composer, and a youth who hears the sea roaring in his ears.
The political implications of Arabs and Jews sharing meals and music are obvious, and, except for hanging the photo of a tank in Dina’s café, Kolirin allows the material to speak — mostly in halting, mangled English and in long, expressive silences — for itself. It would be pretty to think that if Israeli products were not banned in Arab countries, including Egypt, sharing this witty, wise film about a wayward band might reaffirm our common humanity. •