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Insightful'Visit'

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Time Stands Still When Egyptian Band Gets Stranded in Israel

The Band’s Visit” has been widely praised at international festivals (winning the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes) and in Israel (sweeping the Israeli Film Academy Awards for Best Film, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Music and Costumes), but it doesn’t have enough Hebrew in it to qualify as Israel’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. And so it goes with the Academy Award’s arcane qualifying rules.

Fortunately, viewers can still see the film in theatrical release. Israeli writer-director Eran Kolirin makes his debut with deadpan delight, weaving together a physical comedy of miscommunication that is reminiscent of Jacques Tati, Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki. Kolirin astutely uses silence to convey meaning and emotion. It’s lonely living in this modern world, but in the end, his characters learn about each other as well as about themselves.

Egypt’s Alexandria Ceremonial Police Band arrives at an Israeli airport to play at an Arab cultural center, but nobody is there to pick them up. As they stand at attention, their light blue uniforms contrast sharply with their brown skin, visually reinforcing the fact that they’re apparently out of place. The band’s formal, by-the-book leader (Sasson Gabai, who won Best Actor at the European Film Awards) tries to get them where they need to be. But a linguistic snafu gets the band sent on the wrong bus—to a small desert town in the middle of nowhere.

Once there, the band is stuck until the next bus arrives the following day, so they gradually make the best of it. They take up an offer from the lonely café owner Dina (Ronit Elkabetz) to make arrangements to bunk overnight, and so their brief stay in a strange country ensues. English is the lingua franca here as the Egyptians converse and interact with the Israelis—sometimes awkwardly and warily, other times sweetly and poignantly—making it a visit worth watching, even if the Oscars missed the bus on this one.

The Band’s Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret) (Arabic, English and Hebrew with subtitles; 87 min.) Landmark’s E Street Cinema

4.5 out of 5 stars

Dense ‘Witnesses’

“The Witnesses” can be thought of as a small French picture—versus, say, a sweeping epic full of battles and landscapes such as “Lawrence of Arabia.” Yet it’s vcpwdan incredibly dense film packed with nuanced details that talented writer-director André Téchiné (“Strayed,” “Thieves,” “Alice and Martin,” “Wild Reeds,” “My Favorite Season”) elegantly disperses as time progresses. The film moves quickly, adroitly handling multiple characters who defy stereotype or cinematic expectation, thereby being all the more real.

The opening segment, “Summer of ’84, Happy Days,” begins in a Parisian setting full of sexual freedom. Vice cop Mehdi (Sami Bouajila) and author Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart) have just had a baby, but that doesn’t stop them from having sexual relations with others to escape what Sarah calls being “imprisoned.” She’s also more concerned with writing her novel than with her baby, which causes substantial tension in the marriage.

Mehdi and Sarah are joined at the beach by 50-ish doctor Adrien (Michel Blanc), who brings along his new discovery Manu (Johan Libéreau), a carefree young man recently transplanted from southern France. When Mehdi saves Manu from drowning, that kicks off their affair. All is good until the enigmatic specter of AIDS rises over the proceedings.

Adrien becomes a leading researcher in the quest to discover how HIV works as well as a caretaker for Manu. Mehdi and Sarah take their own AIDS tests, with Sarah becoming highly interested in the details of Mehdi’s affair and Manu’s treatment. Since “The Witnesses” is not a Hollywood film, the largely unknown disease doesn’t devastate the characters’ lives or tritely bring them all together. Rather, the characters simply accept the fact and go on living.

The Witnesses (Les Témoins) (French with subtitles; 112 min.; scope) Opens Fri., March 14 Landmark’s E Street Cinema

4.5 out of 5 stars

Father Knows Best

For Australian actor-turned-director Richard Roxburgh’s debut behind the helm, “Romulus, My Father,” his attention turned to the 1998 memoir by writer-philosopher Raimond Gaita. Roxburgh traveled to London to convince Gaita to give him the rights to make the film, adapted into a screenplay by English poet Nick Drake. The result can rightly be called the most highly awarded Australian film of the year, taking home four prizes (Best Film, Best Lead Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Young Actor Award) out of a record 12 Australian Film Institute nominations.

In 1960s rural Victoria, an immigrant family consisting of Romanian-born blacksmith-farmer Romulus (Eric Bana), his beautiful German wife Christina (Franka Potente), and their son Raimond (Kodi Smit-McPhee) eke out a meager life in a lonely, desolate landscape—a harsh backdrop that is exquisitely photographed by Geoffrey Simpson. Romulus is the only steady parent in Raimond’s life, teaching his son: “Things change, but our life is what our thoughts make it.”

The responsibilities of being a wife and mother in such a dreary place are a little too depressing for Christina to bear. She starts to lose her mind and runs off. Christina eventually settles and has a baby with Mitru (Russell Dykstra), a fellow immigrant and the brother of Romulus’s best friend (Marton Csokas). Mitru himself becomes maddened by Christina’s erratic nature as she refuses to help bring up the baby. From there, things get darker, much darker.

The ensemble cast does a fantastic job of embodying the characters and their emotions. Smit-McPhee in particular deserves special note for a fine child-acting performance that serves as the emotional centerpiece of the film.

Romulus, My Father (English and Romanian with subtitles; 109 min.) Opens Fri., March 7 Landmark’s E Street Cinema

4 out of 5 stars

Repertory Notes

Please see International FilmClips for detailed listings available at press time.

Michael Haneke: A Cinema of Provocation Timed with the release of “Funny Games U.S.,” Michael Haneke’s retrospective runs through March 24 at the Goethe-Institut. It looks back at the early works in television and cinema of the maverick Austrian director “known for his bleak, disturbing style.” (202) 289-1200, www.goethe.de/washington

Francophonie Hosted by area embassies, the annual celebration of culture from French-speaking nations kicks off on March 14 with the “Grande Fête de la Francophonie” at the Embassy of France. The corresponding film series (March 18-April 8), held by the Smithsonian Associates, includes titles from Switzerland, Romania, Belgium and Senegal. www.francophoniedc.org/film.htm

Enchanted Forests, Spiritual Journeys at the Freer The Freer’s “Enchanted Forests, Spiritual Journeys: Four Recent Films from Sri Lanka” (March 2-9), cosponsored by the Embassy of Sri Lanka, features films that provide life-changing paths for their subjects to follow, set against the beautiful backdrop of nature. (202) 357-2700, www.asia.si.edu/events/films.asp

Alexander Sokurov at National Gallery The National Gallery of Art’s three-film retrospective of Russian director Alexander Sokurov—regarded as the spiritual heir to Andrei Tarkovsky (1932–86)—includes two Washington premieres and runs March 9 to 15. Often described as a cinematic poet, Sokurov is known for his lastingly memorable pictures and enigmatic protagonists. (202) 842-6799, www.nga.gov/programs/film

AFI Silver Theatre The New African Film Festival runs from March 7 to 16 and includes an Ousmane Sembene retrospective. On March 9, a special screening of “Namibia: the Struggle for Liberation” will be hosted in person by writer-director Charles Burnett. From March 14 to May 15, the series “Ingmar Bergman Remembered, Part II” continues the tribute to the late Swedish psychological auteur. (301) 495-6700, www.afi.com/Silver

About the Author

Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999