.The Boys in the Band

What's it going to be — a sweet tale of sincere musicians on the road or another despairing trip though zombie country with George Romero?

In Eran Kolirin’s disarming first feature, The Band’s Visit, the comic notion of the “funny foreigner” is given a sympathetic cross-cultural spin across the Israeli-Egyptian border. Filmmaker Kolirin intended it as a tribute. According to his “Director’s Statement,” the young Kolirin grew up watching Egyptian movies on TV with his family in Israel, and came to love not only the acting of Omar Sharif and Pathen Hamama but also the show that immediately followed the movie — a program of classical Arabic music played by the Israeli Broadcasting Authority’s orchestra, made up of Arab Jews from Egypt and Iraq.

These days Israeli TV has broadened out, gone global, and lost its regional roots, but evidently the 35-year-old Kolirin, who has written and directed for TV, misses densely plotted Arab movies, thirty-minute love songs, and “the strange, curling script that is the mother tongue of half our population.” The Band’s Visit amounts to a valentine from one admiring Israeli to the popular culture of Egypt, framed as the lightly humorous story of a group of mixed-up musicians.

In their comical baby-blue uniforms and caps, the eight members of the Alexandria Municipal Police Ceremonial Orchestra are the definition of klutzy and out of place as they fidget nervously in the Tel Aviv airport. No one is there to meet them and their sponsored visit to Israel, Egypt’s longtime enemy and now an uneasy neighbor, is getting off to an awkward start. They’re supposed to take a bus to Bet Hatikva — or was it Petah Tikva? — to play a concert at the Arab cultural center, but when they finally arrive to find there is no such place and they’re in the wrong town, they’re stranded in the company of the locals, a bored group of characters hanging out at a cafe.

Writer-director Kolirin peels back the layers of reserve delicately, slowly. The band’s dignified leader, Tewfiq (played by Israeli actor Sasson Gabai), decides to make the best of the situation by having his men spend the night with various accommodating townspeople, who are amused to find Egyptian cops with instruments suddenly dropped in their midst. They discover commonalities. Haled the trumpeter (Israeli-Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri) wants to know if anyone in town digs Chet Baker. Dina the cafe proprietor (veteran actor Ronit Elkabetz) is intrigued by the handsome Haled and his love poetry. Not surprisingly, the pop cultural touchstones are mostly American — an impromptu vocal rendition of “Summertime” around the dinner table, Haled’s interpretation of “My Funny Valentine” on his trumpet, etc. We get the feeling that not only could these people live together peaceably, they could thrive.

When the band finally arrives in the right place and plays its concert, the beauty and delicacy of Egyptian classical music sweeps away the last of our reservations. Their music is as gracious as they are, these provincial bumpkins with their old-fashioned manners. Their music, and their otherworldly courtliness, falls on the small-town Israelis like rain on the desert, and common respect and even love begin to bloom. Too sweet to be real? Filmmaker Kolirin obviously doesn’t think so. He shows Israelis what they’ve been missing, and the rest of us what the Middle East could be, in the gentle, human-scale antics of the confused Egyptian band. I wish they could play in every shopping mall in America.

If that fictional Egyptian police band ever did visit the US, they’d be wise to avoid Pennsylvania. It’s full of zombies. Ever since George Romero changed the face of horror films in 1968 with his still-watchable Night of the Living Dead, he’s made a habit of revisiting the old franchise from time to time, probably whenever he needs some cash. Romero’s latest staggerfest is Diary of the Dead, not the best but certainly far from the worst of his series of accounts of an epidemic of dead people coming to life to eat the living.

It doesn’t take a fright-film maven to spot the Blair Witch connection. It’s set up as a movie inside a movie, made by a diminishing group of Pittsburgh film students intent on capturing everything on digital video. They’re in the woods filming their own mummy pic when news of the marauding corpses reaches them, and their hectic travels inside a Winnebago take them to a farm in Amish country, a warehouse fortress staffed by armed African Americans (it’s not a Romero film without a few strong black characters), one or two scary hospitals (never visit a hospital in the midst of a zombie invasion), and the mansion of Ridley, one of their horror cast members, where corpses float in an indoor swimming pool like putrid water lilies.

Zombies are more terrifying in the country. They have room to roam around in large numbers, and what we lose in coming-around-the-corner peekaboo shock we gain in the vision of a peaceful, bucolic world gone mad with restless stiffs on the prowl for warm meat. Romero’s cast is mostly interchangeable, a generic gaggle of twentysomethings like any other youth-market horror flick. Only Michelle Morgan, as headstrong Deb; Amy Ciupak Lalonde as an annoying Texan named Tracy; and overly British professor Andrew Maxwell (Scott Wentworth) make much of an impression. The zombies, however, are all state of the art.

Just for laughs, and because horror directors are supposed to do that sort of thing, Romero uses the voices of fellow schockmeisters Wes Craven, Stephen King, Simon Pegg, Quentin Tarantino, and Guillermo del Toro as part of the continuous stream of broadcast audio and video flowing through the story. As usual with the casually philosophical Romero, the screenplay calls into question the existence of humankind. “Are we worth saving?” asks one of the characters. “You tell me.” Good question.


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