(previously did this piece for Cafe Dissensus Everyday)
And I dream of a different soul
Dressed in other clothes:
Burning as it runs
From timidity to hope,
Spirituous and shadowless
Like fire it travels the earth,
Leaves lilac behind on the table
To be remembered by. (“Eurydice”, Arseny Tarkovsky)
With his directorial debut, The Band’s Visit (2007), Eran Kolirin must have entered the world of cinema with a similar ambition, foraging a spirit Arseny Tarkovsky so lovingly illustrates. It is this same valiant and free spirit in many a body that has given us history. In a measure though, history has, ironically, become history now; so has this spirit. As Max Weber, an eminent German thinker, once alluded that in the age of rationalization and bureaucratic dominance, we’ll be trapped in an ‘iron cage’, where future would be irreversibly an extension of the present times. However, as we watch Kolirin’s movie, Max Weber’s despairing ‘iron cage’ goes into a tailspin from the pages of his manuscripts and we suddenly find it in The Band’s Visit: we revolve in a circle of conflicted feelings.
In the movie, an Egyptian police band accidentally gets strayed in a remote place called, Bet Hatikva, in Israel. The leader, an elderly man, upholds many virtues, which he finds lacking in the younger generation. He accuses a younger member of being irresponsible and misleading them. Transport from Bet Hatikva is scanty; besides, there is a shortage of hotels for them to spend the night and catch a bus in the morning. Disappointed that they might not be able to perform the concert for which they were invited by the Arab Culture Centre in Petah Tikva in Israel, he feels rather helpless. On being offered accommodation and food for the night by a few local people, he accepts it. While they spend the night exchanging thoughts, stories and music, all the lives involved are affected in some way or the other. The film ends with a beautiful piece of music as we watch the band performing their concert at the Arab Culture Centre.
In the post-war period, yearnings for a liberalized world produced a ‘libertine culture’ in many parts of the world, a substitute for ‘no-culture-at-all’. Kolirin’s characters are found ensnared in such a place, what Papi (one of the local characters) calls: ‘jahanam’ (meaning: hell). All we can hear is the fierce desert wind blowing across the empty roads and see some concrete buildings staring blankly at the strangers. Kolirin’s intention is obvious: he wishes to give us a glimpse of Israel, of people in flesh and blood we often overlook. For outsiders, Israel is a pandemonium of conflict and confusion. In contrast, Bet Hatikva is silence personified; an anguished insufferable silence, as Dina (Ronit Elkabetz) prefers to call it, “dead”. People such as Dina, Itzik, and Papi are the victims of this uprootedness and silence.
Thus begin a conversation between the Egyptian and Israeli culture; the old and the new generation; and between what is beyond history and culture: humans, silence and music. The old is wary of the new, the cultured of the cultureless. What can they, however, do when they are thrown together by providence? It is a treat to watch Tewfiq Zakaria (Sasson Gabai) and his expressions! As an elderly man and the leader of the band, no one would have better suited this role. He literally makes us cringe as he cringes, hesitate as he hesitates, grin as he grins. In the beginning, in Tewfiq’s stance, we see a fear of annihilation; a fear of being rendered purposeless by the changes he encounters. He fervidly holds on to what he believes: order, discipline, rules, dignity and faith, midst a younger generation that loves flirtation and chaos. He is convinced that traditional music has magic. Why do police need to play music? Tewfiq says: “This is like asking why a man needs a soul?” Yet, by the end of his one night platonic rendezvous with Dina, he has, somehow, learnt to understand the new: the rootless and the lonely, and not fight them anymore.
A rich culture is but only a product of being humane; so where the ‘human’ thrives, culture is not lost. In the characters’ want to help each other, to guide each other and to make intimate confessions in front of the other, despite the inconveniences of a foreign language both the parties have to use, we see what is beyond culture that still holds people together. On the other hand, in the restlessness, regrets, and in their blank and bored looks, we also see what the uprootedness have inflicted on the soul: tons of loneliness.
Kolirin doesn’t experiment much with shots, mostly close-ups with two shots and long shots, but there are few shots where he freezes the action for a couple of seconds without really closing on a freeze frame, imitating a freeze frame in a live theatre. These few scenes almost feel like the neutral seconds in Arabic music, as we wait for the melody to resume. Music is taken as the antithesis to the dead silence and in Tewfiq’s gestural definition of music we listen to a silence which is alive, in us and around us.
There is music in Khaled’s (Saleh Bakri) Arabic verses, as Papi listens to him in awe; there’s music in the crib toy, which inspires Simon to complete his overture for a concert. To Tewfiq, this music is found while fishing, in the waves of the ocean, in the distant rumbling of the children on the beach and in the sound of the bait falling in water. While going through this particular scene, I was reminded of yet another beautiful movie: Michael Radford’s Il Postino. What Radford does throughout his movie, Kolirin does it in one shot! After all, poetry is poetry; be it expressed as a sonnet or a haiku.
When it comes to humour, there’s a lot of it but not forced; it comes forth automatically in the wonderful method acting of the actors. Similarly, without any effort the movie also flummoxes our easy notion of the prosaic, when we hear poetry in the words and actions of the members of a police band, who supposedly should be strict and dull. Between enchantment and disenchantment, we realize, yet again, the power of music; how it can enchant even a disenchanted moment.
Not that this film is one of the best in world cinema. It has its share of the downbeat moments, especially with sound editing. Despite Kolirin’s intention to leave the real sounds as they are at some parts, the sounds act as a distraction, being incongruous with the moment presented to us. But one may want to ignore this little fallacy on the face of the constant and pleasant surprises it offers its viewers.
Between 2007 and 2015, Kolirin is known to have directed only one movie, apart from The Band’s Visit. But with a film like The Band’s Visit, even if he had made just one, he would have succeeded in giving us the spirit which leaves lilac behind on the table to be remembered by. Kolirin received the critical acclamation he should have for this wonderful work of art, which was reviewed across the world.
The Band’s Visit, nevertheless, deserves more than few awards and accolades. It is worthy of staying in the minds and hearts of those who genuinely wish to understand the vagaries of time.