Maybe this is how your concerto ends. I mean, not a big end with trumpets and violins. Maybe this is the finish, just like that, suddenly. Not sad, not happy. Just a small room, with a lamp, a bed, a child sleeps, and tons of loneliness.
We begin this film with a bus driver, his vehicle stopped at a very empty bus station, moving a giant yellow sphere from the trunk to the cabin. Not unlike, we note, a sun orbiting a medieval earth that once thought itself the center of a much smaller universe. The driver departs, revealing in his wake an eight-man uniformed squad standing at attention. A helpful caption, the kind you might find in equal measure in one of those terribly modern, terribly ironic stories, and in an older provincial tale completely devoid of irony, enlightens us: "Once, not long ago, a small Egyptian band arrived in Israel. Not many remember this; it was not that important." A pithy summation of many an average life, which, it seems, our characters are resigned to lead.
Our band is the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, and its leader is the sad-eyed curmudgeon Tawfiq Zakariah (Sassoon Gabai). It is he who steps forward at that bus station when he espies a small girl with flowers – surely someone must have been dispatched to welcome the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra – only to see her reunite with some family members. It is also he who rejects the suggestion by his deputy Simon (Khalifa Natour) that the band contact the Egyptian Embassy. "This band has managed for twenty-five years" without, it is implied, the slightest diplomatic privileges; he then alludes to the "current circumstances" as particularly unpropitious to such action. He decides to place a phone call, perhaps to the Arab Culture Center whose opening is the occasion for our film's title. His phone call, in labored but quite clear English, is greeted with a violent "what?" (or maybe, "what!"). He tries again, adding Colonel to his name (which keeps ending in Orchestra), and gets hung up on even more quickly. The bandmates loiter around the station; the eldest member sits hatless with a cigarette and is mistaken for a panhandler (he will later be revealed as a singer of rousing force that belies his age). So after refusing outside aid and taking matters into his own ineffective hands, there remains only one option left to the leader: delegation. For the task of asking which bus leaves to Petah Tiqva, the Colonel selects Khaled (Saleh Bakri), whom, I believe, reviews of The Band's Visit refer to unanimously as "the handsome trumpet player." As it were, the trumpet playing, of which we get a taste much later on, is just a side project: Khaled is the band's violinist, a role he spent "five years at the academy" to be able to fill. Despite these fantastic qualifications, Khaled indeed sees himself first and foremost as a "handsome trumpet player," which explains his pick-up routine at the ticket window, as well as why perhaps the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra does not take the right bus.
Even a relatively callow viewer can imagine the rest of our alleged plot; but even the most experienced cineaste cannot predict how correctly it all develops. The band will arrive in a town whose name to Arabic (but not to Hebrew) speakers is a homophone of Petah Tiqva; there will be a girl, a tender-hearted fellow facing familial expectations, and another fellow under a very different type of societal pressure. The band is informed of its predicament and elects to stay in this humble oasis until the following day, when the right bus will depart to the right town; how the musicians spend the night will therefore encompass the meat of the film. Somewhere along this tortuous path to Petah Tiqva – which we don't really doubt our octet will reach – the band will be mocked by passers-by, in this case, friends of one of the pressured young men who first greet the visitors (our oasis seems at times to be a single housing compound). But if the plot has little to offer, we don't mind overmuch. On the wrong bus, Simon mentions to the Colonel that this musical excursion could be the band's last if "that measure is approved." But it won't be approved, the Colonel tells him with the assurance of a lifelong bureaucrat who has seen countless projects fail. Then a black-and-white picture of a woman in his wallet makes the Colonel fall silent and look out the window. Simon, who has been with the Colonel for twenty years, will also express regret about not having completed a concerto a long time ago, a concerto interrupted by his wife's pregnancy with a much more tangible masterpiece. The person to whom he confesses all this is Itzik (Rubi Moskovitz), a new father who has been "between works" for almost a year. His wife resents what she correctly identifies as a lack of ambition; his parents never seem to have loved each other and disagree about everything; and Itzik looks upon his sleeping child, a creation far greater than that of any artist who has walked this earth, and accepts his destiny as a father – nothing more, nothing less. It is Itzik who reluctantly takes in Simon and two of his bandmates for the night, because he has gone through most of life reluctantly. It is also Itzik who, in an odd moment of self-awareness, utters the quote that begins this review, talking at once about Simon and, of course, himself.
Cinematic rules dictate, however, that our dual protagonists, the Colonel and the handsome trumpet player, will have to stay at the house of the film's primary female character, Dina (Ronit Elkabetz). Dina is somewhere between the Colonel and Khaled in age: she is a bit too old for Khaled and a bit too young, and too spry, to hold the very stiff arm of a man who insists at every moment on taking himself seriously. Dina has had her husbands and her chances – a picture of a much younger and prettier Dina adorns her wall – but somehow, it didn't work out (now and then she sleeps with a married man because, well, both their existences lack adventure). She takes the Colonel out to paint the oasis red and the two discover things about each other that only strangers divulge – strangers who know that this is the first and last time they shall ever meet. That they use a third language, English, for this communication is consonant with their own privacy and limitations; after all, you can only tell a stranger so much before it turns into an assault. The Band's Visit is one of those rare films in which you see everything coming, you are proven right, and yet you never really imagined how sweetly the prediction could come true. There is much comedy, especially involving Khaled, who in the film's iconic scene abets (in a modern twist to this old story) a very inexperienced local. But our compass and chart is Tawfiq Zakariah, a man so serious he must be either insane or the victim of some unspeakable loss. So when Dina ribs the Colonel as to why the orchestra plays traditional Arabic music like Umm Kulthum, he rebuts, "that is like asking why a man needs a soul," a question answered in the film's magnificent closing song. It is also like asking why a man returns all the fish he catches to the eternal sea.