Israeli writer-director Eran Kolirin’s debut, The Band’s Visit, is as thin in plot as it is bursting with story. The wispy 89-minute feature takes place in one day, its nonaction predicated on a mistake: The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra has traveled from Egypt to Israel to perform at the opening of an Arab cultural center. The officers arrive in full dress at the airport with no one to greet or guide them, so the conductor tasks one of his young underlings with getting directions. Soon they get on a bus to a town called Beit Tiqva. But when they arrive, they realize that their intended destination was Petah Tiqva. There are no more buses out of the deserted place that day, so the orchestra is forced to spend the night with a few hospitable restaurant workers.
That’s it. But crashing on couches in an area the band’s hostess describes as “dead” is all it takes to unveil a sweet film that’s heavy on musings about love and family instead of the perhaps more expected theme of political tension—Kolirin doesn’t ignore that, but he leaves it to haunt the film’s corners like a felt-but-not-seen ghost. Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai) and his orchestra are formal and unfailingly polite when they show up at a small Beit Tiqva cafe owned by Dina (Ronit Elkabetz). After a funny exchange in which he and the three-person staff straighten out the confusion (in a conversation dominated by a series of exaggerated “b” and “p” enunciations), Tewfiq immediately leads his single-file line of sky-blue-uniformed musicians on a parade to nowhere. That is, until Haled (Saleh Bakri), the lanky, unflappable ladies’ man whose mistake got them here in the first place, complains that he wants to eat. After the rest of them agree, Tewfiq silently leads them back to the restaurant and meekly asks Dina if she might feed them. And after she informs Tewfiq that there’s no way they’re getting out of town before morning, she persuades her co-workers to each take a few of the band members in for the night.
From that point, the film alternates between two of the makeshift hotels: the home of Itzik (Rubi Moscovich), which is filled with tension as a handful of officers very unwillingly intrude on a birthday dinner for Itzik’s wife, and Dina’s place, where Tewfiq and Haled experience tension of a more provocative kind due to their hostess’s wiggle and red toenails. Besides Haled, no one in either place so much as loosens his tie. “Don’t you want to take your hat off?” Dina finally asks Tewfiq after she suggests taking him—and not his subordinate—out to see what there is of the town. Haled finds his own action, though, tagging along with the shy, awkward Papi (Shlomi Avraham) on his blind roller-rink date with a friend’s girlfriend’s “gloomy” cousin.
There’s a lot of sadness in Kolirin’s script, including Tewfiq and Dina’s discussions about their former relationships, Itzik’s unhappiness in his current one, and Papi’s continual failure to even land a girl in the first place. The cast is skilled at revealing each character’s layers: Gabai’s Tewfiq seems especially mournful under his well-mannered demeanor; Elkabetz’s Dina, meanwhile, can hardly disguise her loneliness in her attempt to seduce the conductor. Even when the roles don’t require multiple notes, the actors are natural and wonderful to watch, particularly Avraham as the wide-eyed, heartbreaking Papi and Bakri, whose smoothness recalls Benicio Del Toro.
But despite all that melancholy, The Band’s Visit is often quite humorous and warm; its underlying message of common humanity is elegantly rendered, not only by emphasizing universal topics but by having the characters communicate mostly in English instead of fumbling in their native tongues. (In a lovely moment, Dina asks Tewfiq to say something in Arabic, “just to hear the music.”) In fact, the film’s preponderance of English disqualified it as a Best Foreign Language Film contender, which is unfortunate: The profile boost might have given it a fighting chance against the short runs and small audiences that so many similar imported gems suffer.