I recently taught the Isreali film The Band’s Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret, dir. Eran Kolirin, 2007, IMDB entry here) to my first-year class on Comedy (ECLT 1099). Thought I’d share the course notes here.
It’s fitting that the plot of The Band’s Visit is set in motion by a linguistic misunderstanding.
At the bus station where the movie begins, Tawfik, the commander and conductor of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, sends Khaled, the band’s young lothario, whom he seems to dislike, to ask about the bus to the town with the Arab Cultural Center where they are to perform. Khaled says his English isn’t so good, and maybe he should send someone else, but is ordered to the counter anyway. He asks about the bus to Bet Hatikvah, and the clerk’s surprise at his request is our first clue that things won’t go as planned. When the band arrives in Bet Hatikvah, Dina and Itzhak at the cafe read their invitation and reveal that they should have gone to Petah Tikvah, a different town entirely. The lack of a distinct letter “P” in Arabic (here in Egypt, one drinks “Bebsi”) and its presence in Hebrew transports the band to a strange place, where they must make do for the night.
The Band’s Visit is very much about such misunderstandings and failures to connect (and the small moments when people manage to get past those failures and engage each other, however briefly). The Egyptian band members and the Israeli townspeople are, like Egypt and Israel, next to each other, but separate from each other. Their natual inclination to relate to their fellow humans is obstructed by barriers of politics (the countries’ wars are still living memories, as when, at around the 17 minute mark, one of the band members hangs his hat over a photo of an Israeli tank in the restaurant, hiding it), language (when the two groups are able to talk to each other, it’s in English, a third tongue that none has fully mastered–compare the crisp translation in the English subtitles to the awkward words actually spoken), and gender (Tawfik’s stiff sense of propriety initially keeps him from appreciating the love and friendship Dina is offering him). In the face of these barriers, characters are together, but alone, standing or sitting next to each other, but not touching. Even in the tender conducting scene above, Tawfik and Dina move in sync, but don’t touch. That lack of touch, the fear and suspicion that keep people from contact with each other–see the band member who offends Itzhak’s wife by wiping down all his glasses and silverware–leaves people, as Itzhak says to Simon near the end of the film, profoundly lonely.
The Band’s Visit conveys this loneliness visually as well as through dialogue and action. The film is full of shots of people existing next to each other without touching, speaking, or looking each other in the eye. Think about the Band members standing stiffly next to each other in the early scenes. The strictures of their institution–they’re a group of artists embedded in the police, a violent authoritarian institution–keep them from interacting as artists or friends. Rank gets in the way. A friendly smile or embrace or musical improvisation are out of the question.
See also the dinner table at Itzhak’s apartment. The Egyptians and Israelis sit on opposites of the table, not talking until Simon and Itzhak’s father-in-law start talking about music and the fantasy of meeting at the Calypso. Or the scene at the roller rink, where Khaled approaches a young woman who goes gliding backward across the floor, inviting him to dance. Khaled, unable to skate, remains stuck to the wall.
The loneliness can be bridged, partially, but only in indirect ways, as when Khaled, in a scene reminiscent of Cyrano de Bergerac, silently shows Papi how woo his date, teaching him the arts of love through gesture, touch, and (elsewhere) poetry in Arabic, a language Papi doesn’t know. Pay attention to this masterfully funny scene. See how much comedy can be produced without a single word spoken.
The one thing that does succeed, at least temporarily, in bridging the divide is music. Khaled woos women by asking “Do you like Chet Baker?” and singing “My Funny Valentine.” The awkward dinner at Itzhak’s gives way to a collective singing of “Summertime,” by George Gershwin. Itzhak and Simon connect over Simon’s unfinished concerto, Tawfik and Dina talk about and listen to Arabic love songs, a genre that Dina dearly loves, even though she can’t understand the words. Music serves as a partial, temporary treatment for loneliness, a way to bridge the gaps, for a while at least.
In Dina and Tawfik, the film creates a sad, funny, not-quite love story. Dina is a woman hungry for love, affection, sex. We learn that she’s divorced, been in an affair with a married man, and gets the evil eye from many people in her staid, conservative town. She finds herself drawn to older, stiff, serious Tawfik, rather than the young, handsome, and flirtatious Khaled.
Tawfik and Dina’s night out is a masterpiece of desire and reluctance–two people who want to connect, to touch–but are held back by both their circumstances and the deep sadness they carry with them. It’s a wonderfully mature love story–Dina and Tawfik are not fresh young lovers, but two people in middle age who have accumulated their share, maybe more, of heartbreak and loss. Love gets harder under those conditions.
The denouement is a triangle between Tawfik, Khaled, and Dina, pictured above. Khaled tries his “Do you like Chet Baker?” come-on on Dina, and it falls flat. Surprisingly, it’s Tawfik who responds, revealing a love for the American jazz musician and asking Khaled to play his trumpet, the instrument he can’t play in the band. After the performance, Tawfik places a fatherly hand on Khaled’s shoulder. For the moment, the two can connect as something other than commander and subordinate. They can be friends, maybe even a surrogate father and son.
Khaled and Dina end up in bed together, but it’s not the love Dina sought with Tawfik. It’s a consolation prize. Tawfik takes his memories of Bet Hatikvah with him, and we end on a shot of his face at the concert, channeling his passions into music, like he always does. Art may not be able to eliminate the gaps that keep people apart, but it can allow us to imagine a better world, to see a park by the sea in a bleak concrete plaza. That’s the little grain of hope that animates The Band’s Visit, the comic hope that keeps tragedy at bay.