The Israel of "The Band's Visit" is one in which God has pushed the pause button. Set in a small, out-of-the-way desert town called Betah Tikva - a development that appears to have stopped developing from sheer inertia - Eran Kolirin's debut film is about the comedy and tragedy of the things that separate people: borders, religions, languages, loneliness. It's a small, profoundly satisfying movie that keeps echoing long after it's over.
In a sort of cosmic joke, an Egyptian police band has arrived in Betah Tikva, its eight members uniformed in powder blue and utterly at sea. They're supposed to be in Petah Tikva to play at the opening of a new Arab Cultural Center but they got on the wrong bus. There's no cultural center in Betah Tikva. There's no culture or center, either. There's only an apartment high-rise, a cafe, a public phone, and locals who've long since given up trying. The appearance of Arabs bearing tubas and ouds is a welcome dash of the surreal.
Leading the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra is Lieutenant Colonel Tewfiq Zakaria, a prim aesthete who's happiest when everything is running according to schedule; actor Sasson Gabai gives him a stiff back and unfathomably sad eyes. His second-in-command is a milquetoast named Simon (Khalifa Natour), who once composed two measures of a clarinet concerto and just stopped - there's a lot of that in this movie.
The only other member of the band we really get to know is Khaled (Saleh Bakri), a rangy young dreamboat with a pickup routine about Chet Baker that works wonders on women. After the initial shock of being marooned in what's theoretically enemy territory gives way to tentative relief - the Israelis are slackers, just like the ones they have back in Egypt - the group fans out into the apartments of a few Good Samaritan locals.
At the center of "The Band's Visit" is the relationship between Tewfiq and Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), the cafe owner with whom he stays. She has been around the block - several times at least - and her loose, carnal playfulness initially strikes the Lieutenant Colonel with horror.
Yet he's a gentleman, he's in her debt, and he's intrigued. One of the film's most delicious culture clashes is that between prudish men and sensual women, and its most pleasurable scenes are those in which Dina teases this gentle martinet out of his shell. (Elkabetz is remarkable, with a potent, mature eroticism and great hair.)
Khaled, meanwhile, has invited himself along on a double date at a wheezy, underpopulated roller disco. Simon and some of the others shack up with an unemployed sad sack named Itzik (Rubi Moskovitz), whose wife is celebrating her birthday. (She isn't delighted about finding a bunch of Arab policeman on the other side of her cake.) "The Band's Visit" intercuts between these three story lines with dogged regularity, and it hits the expected we're-all-really-just-human-beings themes.
Surprisingly, it then goes further, probing the chambers of our wayward hearts and wondering why we so readily accept substitutes for love: art, for instance, or sex. The movie posits shyness as the human condition; it says we're locked not in our respective cultures or spiritual beliefs but in the prisons of ourselves. Maybe this is all we get, says someone in the movie: a baby sleeping in the next room and tons of loneliness.
Maybe. And maybe all it takes to connect is a Chet Baker solo or a song by the great Egyptian singer Umm Kalthoum. Or fishing: Tewfiq can't explain to Dina what Arab music means to him, but he bursts into eloquence when describing baiting and setting his hook. Language here is both crucial and what we make of it: If the movie sees Arabic as aural poetry and Hebrew as the language of resignation, then English is a free zone in every sense of the phrase.
Here's an irony for you, then: Because over 50 percent of "The Band's Visit" is in English, the film - an Israeli smash hit and multiple award winner - was deemed ineligible for this year's foreign language Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It has also been banned from film festivals in Cairo and Abu Dhabi. What this pellucid little movie uses to unite its characters - language and love - others are using to divide. You don't have to make the same mistake.