‘Band’ Aid Without Stickiness

Is it any wonder that the director of a treasured and trumpeted Israeli film about an Egyptian police band from Alexandria should be concerned about … tone?

Strike up the "Band" — Eran Kolirin certainly has, with "The Band's Visit," a sentimental journey of Jews and Arabs that strikes just the right … tone.

"Tone is important to me," says the triumphant director of his first feature, featuring an eclectic gang of Egyptian music men lost in translation in Israel after they've taken the wrong bus to perform at the opening of an Arab cultural center.

Instead, they get caught up in the cross-hairs of a cultural cul-de-sac. But as guests for the night of a naughty-but-nice Israeli restaurateur with an appetite for the soft-spoken stoic conductor, they find that being sandbagged in the desert for one night isn't so bad after all.

"The Band's Visit," a multiple-award-winner internationally, touches down for a stay in Philadelphia beginning Feb. 22.

Alexandria's ragtime band? The musical octet that is this eclectic band offers as many lessons as it gets in a family film noted for its sweet bunk-bed — rather than military bunk — mentality.

It smiles on the similarities of strangers, trading memories of the Israeli-Egyptian Six-Day War for a One-Night Wager that would have Rodney King smiling that, yes, we all can get along.

Along the way, Kolirin's kiln of filmmaking burnishes the reputation he's already achieved for "Zur — Hadassi," which took a major award at the 1999 Jerusalem International Film Festival.

As for the film's tone … he's not one to telephone it in.

"To me, directing is about tone, more than telling a story," he says. "It is about getting that right" synchronization of scat and soul.

The director captures the right feel for this feel-good film about … loneliness?

Yes, loneliness, he assures, finding solace in the solitude of his forlorn — if not for long — isolated group of strangers.

The movie is superbly aglow with pregnant pauses that are painted Pinteresque in a picture perfect fashion. How appropriate that the Egyptian band's quiet conductor — played to a fine measure by Israeli Jewish actor Sasson Gabai — should need an extra beat to answer the most innocuous of questions posed by the sultry oasis of a cafe owner (the deliciously sexy Ronit Elkabetz) intent on invading his innocence while attired in a screaming crimson dress that would make the Red Sea part.

"Awkward situations that people relate to" is at the heart of Kolirin's objet d'art in this wonderfully playful screenplay that is more "smile movie" than laughing out loud.

After all, this is not the kind of film that "has people slipping on banana peels."

No, it's appeal is more slippery, a slyly sophisticated endearment of an endgame that rotates romance into the real world, where sincere goodbyes are often the best buys a heart can hope for.

"The Band's Visit" is a welcome mat woven wonderfully, in which the director's road map was plotted by heart as he was intent on following what he calls "my aesthetic."

It has all the signs of success, as evidenced by those attesting to its greatness at the box office around the world.

Not that "The Band's Visit" has a passport to pass through every country's portals; it has been denied access to a number of Egyptian/Arab film fests. "But that has all to do with politics, not the film," Kolirin reasons rightly.

And it couldn't get the biggest hit hechsher of all — a stamp of approval from Hollywood, where "Band" aid has not been applied in a raging rules imbroglio.

Indeed, "The Band's Visit" was Israel's first choice as Oscar contender this year as best foreign film but was denied entry by Oscar officials, who noted that its screenplay was mainly in English, a rules violation.

Oscar, meet Kolirin? Not going to happen, this time anyway.

It's a blessing in disguise, not disgust, avows Kolirin of the screenplay snafu/snub.

"If I would have been nominee, I would have had to stay here for three months," promoting the picture, says the filmmaker, with his thoughts pried open by every media outlet in the world.

The big picture?

"I miss home," he says, homing in on the flight back to Israel he is about to take. "If this would have been nominated, I would never have gotten back."

But "The Band's Visit" is not over even if his is. This is no backpack of a movie; it is here to stay, even as the director edits himself out of the local picture and returns to Israel.

"The Band's Visit" indeed is open-ended. The director's visit?

Very nice, he enthuses of the States, even if his stay's sitelines were as barren as the band's desert inn.

"I saw some very nice interior designs of hotel rooms," he ruminates, striking just the right tone for his tour de heart. 



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