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Film review: ‘Band’s Visit’ witty, surprisingly character-driven

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THE BAND'S VISIT — *** 1/2 — Sasson Gabai, Roni Elkabetz, Saleh Bakri; with English subtitles (Hebrew and Middle Eastern dialects); rated PG-13 (profanity, slurs, vulgarity)

Admittedly, "The Band's Visit" is a little off-beat and low-key. But rarely, if ever, is the film off-key.

In fact, the one sole, sour note in this Israeli-produced comedy-drama is a bit of objectional language — one strong profanity, in fact. That is the only reason for its PG-13 rating.

Otherwise, it's a charming, witty and surprisingly character-driven piece that features natural, unforced performances and that has something substantive to say about cultural differences.

The film's title refers to the Alexandria Ceremonial Orchestra, an Egyptian police band that's supposed to play as part of the inauguration program at an Arab cultural center.

Unfortunately, there's been a bit of a communication breakdown, and they've wound up in the wrong Israeli city. What's worse, there are no buses departing from this infrequently traveled spot for another day.

But kind-hearted restaurateur Dina (Roni Elkabetz) does agree to feed the orchestra's members and then put them up for the night. She also finds some common ground with Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai), the band's conductor and ranking officer.

Most of the other band members are eating or resting, but in the meantime, insolent junior officer Khaled (Saleh Bakri) has slipped out to check out some of the nightlife.

First-time screenwriter/director Eran Kolirin accomplishes a lot here with deceptively simple, yet honest storytelling. He's wise enough to let the humor develop naturally, from the characters and the situations rather than contrivances.

A scene in which Khaled tries to help a hapless Israeli lad (Shlomi Avraham) with his romantic predicament is amusing and sweet, without becoming false or sentimental.

And so are the exchanges between Elkabetz's clearly lonely Dina and the suddenly vulnerable and confused Tewfiq. These are characters the feel believable and are engaging.

"The Band's Visit" is rated PG-13 for scattered profanity (including one use of the so-called, "R-rated" curse word) and slurs based on ethnicity and nationality, as well as some suggestive references and language. Running time: 84 minutes.

E-mail: jeff@desnews.com