How did anyone manage to base a critically acclaimed Broadway musical on a movie in which the characters only perform one song together?
The story begins with a disqualification from the Academy Awards, followed by a tragedy involving one of its leading actors, but ends, appropriately, in triumph.
Originally released in 2007, “The Band’s Visit” landed on several top 10 lists, and was praised by Roger Ebert for its depiction of Arabs and Israelis standing before one another as ordinary people. It ended up taking home eight awards from the Israeli Film Academy, but was rejected for Oscar consideration in the Best Foreign Language Film category because over half of the dialogue was in English. Though it would be reborn as an award-winning musical in November 2016, the film’s leading lady, Ronit Elkabetz, passed away just months earlier after a long struggle with cancer.
When the movie begins, the only thing we know about the eight uniformed musicians is that they’re members of Egypt’s Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, and a misunderstanding upon their arrival for a gig at the Arab cultural center in Israel puts them on the wrong bus, stranding them in a small town in the middle of the Negev Desert overnight. Over the course of the evening, the personalities and stories of each man come forth in various ways, giving their lone musical performance an emotional weight that would not have been achieved through conventional means.
While the stage version of “The Band’s Visit” contains 17 songs, its source only contains fragments for the most part. Fauzi (Hisham Khoury) plays a bit of an unfinished concerto, Haled (Saleh Bakri) blows a few bars from Chet Baker’s “My Funny Valentine,” and a drunken rendition of Gershwin’s “Summertime” is sung a capella at the dinner table in front of a family, several of whom aren’t entirely happy about their unexpected houseguests. But the most affecting moments of “The Band’s Visit” contain no music at all, proving true the Claude DeBussy quote about music being “the space between the notes.” As cafe owner Dina, Elkabetz has heartbreak in her eyes before she ever says a word, and her scenes with bandleader Tawfiq (Sasson Gabai) are the deep pulse that provides the film’s unforgettable rhythm.
In the pantheon of great movies about bands that includes such classics as “A Hard Day’s Night,” “The Commitments” and “Dreamgirls,” “The Band’s Visit” is a silent film by comparison, cranking the volume with its minimalist aesthetic that serves as a perfect compliment to its airy, soulful indie tone. There’s comedy, there’s romance, and there’s drama, but each beat is presented so masterfully that you might find yourself tapping your foot when no one is playing.
The Willson Center for Humanities and Arts at UGA and the Athens Jewish Film Festival will present a free screening of “The Band’s Visit” on Tuesday at Athens Ciné. Admission is free; however, tickets will be required and picked up at the Ciné box office on a first-come, first-served basis. A reception will be held in the CinéLab at 6:30 p.m., prior to the film, and a brief discussion will take place after the screening.
Visit www.athensjff.org or athenscine.com for details.
Ciné will host the 10th annual Athens Jewish Film Festival on March 24-28.