For my money, “The Band’s Visit” should have been Israel’s nominee for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film instead of “Beaufort.” It combines funny and poignant elements in a richly entertaining way that is not the case with “Beaufort.”
As the filmmaker, Eran Kolirin, indicated on Lenny Lopate’s program on WNYC public radio, the plot is pure invention; an Egyptian police band from Alexandria is inadvertently lost in Israel on a visit to perform at the opening of an Arab culture center. In reality, there is virtually no such cultural exchange in Egypt’s cold peace with Israel.
For the same reason, Kolirin said it was impossible to hire Egyptian actors; the cast is entirely Israeli. Most are Israeli Arabs, including the son of Mohammed Bakri (Saleh Bakri), who portrays a young “lady-killer” charmer reminiscent of the heartthrob that his father was as an actor. His father was in the cast of Israel’s last finalist for an Academy Award, “Beyond the Walls” in 1984.
I remember being disappointed that year after staying up late in the hope that this drama of Jewish and Arab inmates in an Israeli jail finding a measure of solidarity would win. It’s frightening to realize how long ago this was and how totally problematic Jewish-Arab relations still are.
The Egyptian band leader is played by a veteran Israeli-Jewish actor (Sasson Gabai) who is originally from Iraq. Although a native speaker of Arabic, he took lessons in the Egyptian dialect to speak it with an authentic accent.
In the smart words of the sassy female lead (Ronit Elkabetz), the Egyptians accidentally find themselves in a backwater Israeli town with “no Arab culture, no Israeli culture, no culture whatsoever.” But the Egyptians’ overnight stay provides some in the town with a hint of culture and a quietly profound human experience.
So, why is it not Israel’s candidate for an Academy Award? The picture was disqualified because too much of the dialogue is in English, despite the fact that English would be the only language of communication between most Israelis and Egyptians. The rest is in Hebrew and Arabic, but not enough to satisfy the purists and the bureaucrats.
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