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Originally published Friday, February 29, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"The Band's Visit" is about music, unlikely friendship

They arrive, in suits as powdery blue as a painted sky, wheeling their matching black suitcases with military precision. They look around the...

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

"The Band's Visit," with Sasson Gabai, Ronit Elkabetz, Saleh Bakri, Khalifa Natour. Written and directed by Eran Kolirin.

89 minutes. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language. In Hebrew, Arabic and English, with English subtitles. Harvard Exit.

They arrive, in suits as powdery blue as a painted sky, wheeling their matching black suitcases with military precision. They look around the unfamiliar airport, waiting to be met by someone who never comes. They are strangers in a strange land, with musical instruments to boot: an Arab military police band, arriving in Israel to play at the opening of an Arab cultural center, unsure in the way that only weary travelers can be.

Israeli filmmaker Eran Kolirin's "The Band's Visit" is about music, unlikely friendship and finding a little bit of home in a faraway place. After a miscommunication causes the band to leave the airport in entirely the wrong direction, the eight men find themselves stranded in a very small desert town. Tired and hungry, they find a small cafe, owned by the agreeably sardonic Dina (Ronit Elkabetz, her voice as dry as those desert sands). She knows nothing of an Arab cultural center; in her town, she says, there is "no Arab culture, no Israeli culture, no culture at all."

But she's not the sort to let visitors go hungry or unsheltered, and soon the band is parceled out for the night; two to Dina's apartment, the rest to other hosts. Thus begins a night of unusual getting-to-know-you, in which the band's taciturn leader Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai) and Dina quietly form a bond. Elsewhere, handsome young Khaled (Saleh Bakri) gives dating advice to a new friend, and a too-crowded tableful of strangers bond over an awkward singalong of "Summertime" (with the notes fading out on the bass end of the register, as nervous singers tend to do). It's an eventful evening, leading to a morning of memorable goodbyes.

Kolirin wonderfully maintains an atmosphere of both humor and melancholy, as wistful and sweet as Chet Baker's "My Funny Valentine" (sung, quite beautifully, by Bakri early in the film). Gabai and Elkabetz find a tentative, genuine chemistry, as this forthright woman detects something carefully guarded behind the band leader's politeness; he's a lonely man, with a story he keeps hidden. When Dina asks him why police need an orchestra, he replies simply, "This is like asking why a man needs a soul."

"The Band's Visit," frustratingly, was ineligible for Academy Award submission this year; word is that too much of it was in English (the Arab and Israeli characters generally speak Arabic and Hebrew amongst themselves, respectively, and English as a linking bridge). But in any language, it's not to be missed.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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