Dir/scr: Eran Kolirin. Is/Fr. 2007. 85 mins.
This melancholy deadpan comedy accepted in three out of Cannes' four official sections and finally running in Un Certain Regard, is a kind of prestidigitator's tightrope act, almost crashing down several times before triumphantly reaching its goal in one piece.
Though nothing much is happening throughout as far as 'action' goes, its gentle but painstaking observation of characters and their natural habitat more than compensates, and its quiet, unassuming tone, which prefers to imply rather than trumpet its intentions, is certain to find favour with many arthouse patrons and festival programmers.
If anything, Eran Kolirin's first theatrical feature (he has previously made TV films), is almost too understated for its premise. While it is about the unlikely visit of an Egyptian police band to Israel, it insistently stays away from the obvious political issues suggested by the circumstances. Shai Goldman's sensitive camera and a cast combining experienced veterans such as Ronit Elkabetz and Sasson Gabai, and talented newcomers like Saleh Bakri and Khalifa Natour, join forces to sustain Kolirin across some of the narrative snags that he hits once in a while, ultimately delivering a simple, sincere, conciliatory message in the midst of the fierce Middle East confrontational atmosphere of these days.
Kolirin's script is not very realistic in the present state of relations between Israel and Egypt, and who knows when or if it will ever be, but as the opening gambit for a humanistic fantasy, it is serviceable enough. The Alexandria Police Band, an outfit whose musical credentials may be questionable but whose appearance leaves nothing to be desired, have been invited to play at the opening of a cultural centre in Israel, but no one waits for them when they land at the airport.
Tawfiq (Gabai), the conductor, musical director and commander in charge, is confident that he can manage on his own and will not hear of calling the Embassy and asking for assistance. He puts his band on a bus and reaches a remote, non-descript dormitory town, one of those forsaken new housing projects that all look the same, whether they are in Latin America, the Far East or Israel. At the one kiosk still open and showing some signs of life, they find out they are in the wrong place but there is no transportation available before the next morning. With no hotel in sight for them to stay in, Dina (Elkabetz), the kiosk's owner, suggests they spend the night with some of the local families, inviting a couple of them to share a spare bed in her own flat.
Encounters between the Egyptian uniformed musicians and the local people unfold, suggesting how easy it is for people to understand each other despite not sharing a common language and regardless of the different ethnic characteristics that should alienate them. On the Israeli side, there is a patriarch who remembers his youthful musical aspirations and the Egyptian films that were once immensely popular on Israeli TV; an unemployed husband who loses the respect of his wife; a forlorn lover waiting all night long by the public phone for his girlfriend to call; and Dina herself, a love-hungry middle-aged woman facing painful loneliness. Then there are the strictly correct Tawfiq who is heart-broken after his wife passed away out of sheer grief when he rejected their disobedient son; Simon (Natour), his assistant, searching in vain a suitable climax for his clarinet concerto, and Saleh (Bakri), impatient and rebellious, who would rather play jazz trumpet than traditional violin. Distributed evenly between hosts and guests, these characters transcend their national identity and find, in their own awkward way, how much alike they really are.
Kolirin's script may not be quite tight enough and the laidback pace risks losing the audience every once in a while. But his consistent, life-size, lifelike characters, splendidly placed within a forlorn landscape's intentional banality, is remarkably effective. Shai Goldman's camera provides him with images that are often reminiscent of still-life paintings.
Gabai, generally considered one of the finest actors in the country, has rarely been offered a better opportunity to display his gifts. Alternately stern, rigid, understanding and self-recriminatory, he never puts a foot wrong in a performance controlled down to the smallest detail. Elkabetz is even more surprising, shedding the heavy make-up with which she has been associated, for a simple, unadorned and touching performance.
Sophie Dulac Productions
Sophie Dulac Prodcutions (Francophone territories)
Koby Gal Raday
Habib Shehade Hanna
Hila Surjon Fischer