The Band’s Visit and the Ties That Bind Us

The Band's Visit (2007) | Sony Pictures Classics
Sony Pictures Classics

“Once, not long ago, a small Egyptian police band arrived in Israel. Not many remember this. It was not that important.”

Shown in both Arabic and Hebrew, these lines form the opening of 2007 film The Band’s Visit. The film then cuts to a shot of a group of men standing very straight, very silent, and very still, all in a line. Their powder blue uniforms are jarringly bright against the gray expanse around them, their instrument cases scattered around their feet. This group of men, stiff as soldiers and just as expressionless, is the titular band.

They’re obviously waiting for something, but it’s not immediately clear what. Director Eran Kolirin plays with long, empty wide shots of the roads around them as they stand there, none of them speaking to or even looking at one another. There’s an uncomfortably pervasive sense of isolation to the scene, even as the band is all clustered together. At one point, a van pulls up on the opposite side of the street and their leader, Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai), takes a single step out towards it. Then he realizes it’s not there for them and steps back again, a little miffed. None of the band members’ expressions shift even a little bit.

It’s a comedic opening for a comedic film, but what’s interesting about the opening lines is why we find them funny. It’s not just the dismissively blasé tone they take. We as viewers immediately read them as ironic, because they contradict our very idea of what a film should be. People don’t make movies about things that aren’t important, after all.

This dry affirmation sets the tone for what kind of film The Band’s Visit is. This is Kolirin letting us know right from the start that what happens here may be small and quiet, but it matters. It may not seem like it on the surface. It won’t change the world. It may not even change the lives of the characters within it. But, even so, it matters.

*

I think some of the best films are about the gaps between people, and the connections that we form with one another to bridge those gaps. Being human means having a fundamental need to be with others, after all, to assuage the loneliness that we all feel from time to time.

The Band’s Visit takes that loneliness and brings it to the forefront. We open on the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra on their way to play a concert in Petah Tikva, but the vehicle that’s supposed to bring them there doesn’t seem to be arriving. The stern and stalwart Tewfiq insists that they just take a bus there instead—however, a misunderstanding arising from the fact that the “p” sound doesn’t exist in Arabic finds them arriving in a tiny desert town named Beit Hatikva instead. The locals there, led by cool café owner Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), offer to put the band up for the night at their various residences. They can leave for Petah Tikva in the morning.

Through the start of the film, Kolirin frequently employs those wide shots, sometimes of the characters and sometimes of the emptiness around them, to convey an underlying feeling of detachment. Though the band is often clustered together, they rarely speak or look at each other, following after Tewfiq like a line of lost ducklings. The visual of these uniformed men looking so uncomfortably out of place in the vast emptiness of the Israeli desert, contrasted against the people of Beit Hatikva regarding them with both interest and apprehension, is funny and somber by turns. Beneath the comical absurdity of the situation is a deep, omnipresent melancholy. All of these characters are isolated, in their own way—and now, they’ve been thrust together by fate and a mispronunciation.

Over the course of the film this isolation manifests itself in every storyline, but primarily in its three central characters: Tewfiq, Dina, and Khaled (Saleh Bakri). Dina invites Tewfiq and Khaled to stay at her apartment for the night, but a restlessness and mutual curiosity leads the three of them to go out for the night; Dina and Tewfiq venture into town together, while the younger Khaled explores on his own. They disperse and re-meet through the night, the bonds that develop between them forming the crux of the film. The three of them are like planets in orbit: pulled toward each other by the same gravitational force, but never to truly reconcile with one another.

From the moment she saunters out of her café to meet Tewfiq, Dina is an intriguing figure, irrepressibly charming with her perpetually amused smirk and blunt way of speech. Elkabetz delivers a magnetic performance, her eyes dark and expressive, Dina’s personality shining through even in the long stretches of silence. When she talks about her past and her life in Beit Hatikva, there’s no bitterness over the hand that life has dealt her, though once there might have been. Instead there’s just stoic acceptance, and determination to do what she can, given her circumstances. In her apartment, Tewfiq notices a framed black-and-white photo of a beautiful, much younger woman on her wall. She looks like she could be a movie star.

Tewfiq remains staunchly closed off and a little bewildered at this whole situation through the first half of the film, accompanying Dina out of a sense of obligation more than anything else as she takes him to a local diner. They make an odd pair as they sit across from each other, her in a flowing red dress and him in his stiff blue uniform. She prods at his exterior but he gives her very little, leaning out instead of in and avoiding eye contact with her wherever possible. Then she asks him about music, and something changes.

It seems intuitive for a film about a band to have music as a focal point, but its importance is heightened given the extraordinary circumstances of The Band’s Visit. With the characters only able to use broken English to communicate with one another, the only shared language is music.

Every moment of connection in the film, no matter how brief or fleeting, is underscored by music. Kolirin uses it masterfully to illustrate the universal nature of what music means to people, and how it makes us feel. As the band and the people of Beit Hatikva fumble their way through the cultural barriers between them, music becomes an anchoring point. Tewfiq’s right hand man, Simon (Khalifa Natour), plays the beginning of his unfinished concerto, and local Itzik (Rubi Moskovitz) is captivated by it despite it only being a few bars long. A group of band members sing old Gershwin classic “Summertime” with Itzik’s music-loving father-in-law (Uri Gavriel). The oldest member of the band sits outside and sings into the night as a young man stands by the town’s lone payphone and waits for his girlfriend to call him. Music is connection to them—it’s a mutual understanding, a way of reaching out to one another without having to contend with the challenge that a language barrier poses.

In the diner, Dina asks Tewfiq what kind of music the band plays.

“We play classical Arab music,” Tewfiq replies.

“What, like Umm Kulthum?” Dina asks, amused. “Farid?”

Tewfiq nods, and she laughs.

“But…why do the police need to play Umm Kulthum?”

Tewfiq looks at her then, a peculiar openness in his expression, and for the first time so far it feels like he’s showing her—and us—a part of himself. There’s a man under there who’s just as lonely as the rest of them, and just as much in need of someone else.

“This is like asking why a man needs a soul.”

*

In The Band’s Visit, there is no shot lonelier than the close-up. While the wide shots that Kolirin opens the film with are more indicative of displacement and detachment, the close-ups are the spaces where characters truly exist alone. Subjects are often positioned to one side of the frame, leaving emptiness in the other half. The sense that there is space unfilled, a second presence missing, is palpable. The only character to make a conscious effort to fill that space is Khaled.

Khaled, the youngest of the band members and certainly the most charming, is a perpetual source of comedy. His youth and carefree attitude, paired with an impulse to approach every pretty woman he sees, make him an easy target for Tewfiq’s ire whenever their plans go awry. Still, beneath the surface of his apparent role as the requisite skirt-chaser of the ensemble, Khaled embodies a sort of openness and willingness to reach out that none of the other characters are fully capable of.

After Dina and Tewfiq leave, Khaled tags along with café employee Papi (Shlomi Avraham) to a roller rink to get a taste of the nightlife in Beit Hatikva. As “Sunny” by Boney M. accompanies the skaters, Kolirin shoots the socially awkward Papi standing alone on the right side of the frame, uncertainly hovering at the edge of the roller rink, the empty space next to him gaping wide. Then Khaled slides in on the left and plants himself next to Papi, smiling amiably.

Of all the characters in the film, Khaled may be the only one who truly understands the desire for connection that lives in everyone. The playboy who secretly has a heart of gold might be a tired trope, but there’s a distinct sense that Khaled really cares about breaching the barriers between people, not just fulfilling his own needs. In one of the first scenes we see of him, while the band is trying to figure out how to get to Petah Tikva, Tewfiq sends Khaled off to buy the bus tickets for the band. Khaled sidles up to the ticket counter and almost immediately starts flirting with the Israeli woman working there, the two of them separated by a pane of glass.

“Do you like Chet Baker?” he asks. She looks back at him, confused but intrigued, as he begins to sing “My Funny Valentine,” quiet and low. Tewfiq just watches this unfold, intensely annoyed.

It’s played for laughs—Khaled is flirting quite brazenly and with an absurd lack of self-consciousness, after all—but it’s the first moment of connection between a member of the band and an Israeli character that we see throughout the film. The barrier between them is literally represented by a glass pane and the crackly speakers that their voices come through, but still, Khaled makes the connection.

At the roller rink, Khaled asks Papi if he’s ever been with a girl, and Papi shakes his head. He asks Khaled to tell him what it’s like, his eyes wide with curiosity as the disco music thrums in the background. Khaled thinks for a moment. We never get the sense that he’s just humoring Papi or looking down on him for his lack of experience. Something about his demeanor says that he really cares.

“I can tell you,” Khaled says. “But only in Arabic.”

Papi nods, still eager to hear. Instead of explaining, Khaled begins to recite part of a poem by Algerian poet Emir Abdelkader.

I am both love and the loved one. Love is just a sentence.
I am both love and the loved one, secretly and openly.
I say “me” and no one but “me.”
I am crazy about myself.

A little self-centered in its message? Perhaps. But it seems to affect Papi as the music fades away, even though he doesn’t understand it. The film cuts to a shot of him looking across the room at the girl he came here with tonight, who he’s been neglecting out of fear. Just looking, for now. Later, Khaled will help Papi cross that gap, as he always does. Khaled may delight in seeking out companionship, but there’s an even bigger part of him that wants to help others do the same thing.

*

The Band's Visit (2007) | Sony Pictures Classics

It’s Khaled who initially urges Tewfiq to go out with Dina that night, but the way Dina and Tewfiq’s relationship develops on its own through the course of the film is slow but entrancing. Both their walls begin to come down as the night goes on and they wander Beit Hatikva. Dina is especially fascinated by Tewfiq’s explanation of how he conducts the band and how it must feel to play music for a crowd of people. He shows her how to conduct and she follows along, her arms lifting and falling in graceful motions more reminiscent of those of a dancer. Not for the first time, we catch a glimpse of the elegance and vivacity that she must have had when she was younger, before it was tempered with time and disappointment.

“It looks like the most important thing in the world,” Dina exclaims, a delighted, open-mouthed smile coming across her face. Tewfiq is smiling too, her joy infectious. It’s this moment of pure, unabashed human connection that defines The Band’s Visit and all that it seeks to portray. The intensity of the bonds that humans are capable of forming with others even in the most unlikely of circumstances are on full display. For the moment, at least, these two profoundly lonely people don’t feel alone anymore.

It feels like the beginning of a romance. We recognize all the signs of a man and woman falling in love. Dina and Tewfiq forming such a sudden but powerful connection could be the start of something between them—and if film conventions are to be believed, it will be. But The Band’s Visit, as established from the beginning, isn’t that kind of film.

When Dina and Tewfiq return to her apartment building, Dina ventures that they give what’s between them a shot. Perhaps a part of her is thinking about the Arab movies she used to watch as a child, or the sweeping Arab love songs she used to hear on the radio. But Tewfiq tells her that he can’t, because he blames himself for the deaths of both his wife and his son, a sorrow that still weighs heavy on him.

Just like that, the connection is severed. The Band’s Visit is a comedy, but it’s also infused with an aching sadness that all its characters seem to carry. Khaled returns to the apartment with them and the three of them sit around the small kitchen table, silent and unmoving.

“Dina,” Khaled says. “Do you like Chet Baker?”

“Who?” Dina replies, dry.

Khaled sings the same lines from “My Funny Valentine” that he sang at the beginning to the woman at the ticket booth. They sound a little different now. They aren’t as comic as they were before—instead, they’re tinged with a little sadness. This time, he’s not singing to anyone in particular.

A moment of silence passes before Tewfiq says, unexpectedly, that he likes Chet Baker. Khaled looks at him with surprise, a smile spreading across his face. The two of them have been at odds the entire film, but neither of them are exactly the same as they were at the beginning of the night. Tewfiq is a little more open, a little more receptive—willing to reach out, just this once.

Khaled picks up his trumpet and begins to play “My Funny Valentine,” the sharp sound of the instrument piercing the silence of the room. As he plays, Kolirin cuts between tight close-ups of the three characters’ contemplative faces. The loneliness of each close-up is suffocating. The others are there, just off the edge of the frame, or out of focus in the background, but none can quite breach that untouchable space.

Tewfiq quickly retreats back into himself after the song is over, saying that he wants to go to bed early when Dina proposes they break out a bottle of wine. Just like that, he’s guarded again, back to what he was before. But Dina, overwhelmed by the rush of new emotions she’s experienced, isn’t quite ready for it to be over yet.

Later that night Tewfiq wakes up and ventures out into the kitchen when he hears a creaking noise coming from Dina’s bedroom. He turns slowly to see, through a crack in her door, Dina and Khaled in bed together. It’s a natural conclusion to the story that The Band’s Visit has been telling, an easy solution to the need for connection that has risen to the surface across the course of this night. Dina is still looking for the new and unexpected feeling of being with somebody, and where she can’t find it in Tewfiq, she finds it in Khaled. He fills the space.

*

The Band’s Visit ends as it began: with the band outside Dina’s café, clustered together and waiting for Tewfiq’s instruction. Kolirin makes sure not to show them in the process of leaving. One shot they’re there, waving goodbye to Dina. We cut to her watching them leave, and then we cut back again, and they’re gone, leaving only empty space. The abruptness of their departure gives the film a sudden bittersweet edge, even though it was clear all along that it would end this way. It doesn’t feel like a resolution.

The Band’s Visit coaxes you into wanting to believe that this story will go on outside of this film, and that it matters as much to these characters as it does to us. But it won’t, and it doesn’t. The characters have collided like intersecting lines, meeting once and then parting ways forever.

Kolirin explains his ending earlier in the film. At the end of the night, Simon sits on the spare bed with his clarinet, watching Itzik’s newborn son sleep. Itzik, sitting next to him, gestures vaguely at the room around them.

“You know…maybe this is how your concerto ends,” he says, stumbling over his words. “I mean, not a big end, with trumpets and violin. Maybe this is the finish. Just like that, suddenly. Not sad, not happy. Just a small room, a lamp, a bed, child sleeps, and…tons of loneliness.”

Not every ending does have to be sad or happy. The Band’s Visit is simple and unimportant, its events neither revolutionary nor particularly exciting. The lives of the characters will go on after this, largely unchanged by what happened. But as the credits roll, we, the audience, are left with a profound sense of gratefulness that we were allowed to bear witness to this night, and how it laid bare the human capacity for intense, immediate connection. Isn’t that what we all want, in the end—one truly remarkable night, out of a thousand unremarkable ones?