A remote, Israeli desert town is the setting for this droll, endearing comedy about an accidental cultural exchange that very quietly says some very important things about contemporary Arab-Israeli relations.
The eight-man Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, under the direction of stiff, unsmiling conductor Commander Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai) and his undervalued lieutenant, Simon (Khalifa Natour), has been invited to Petach Tikva to participate in the inauguration of the Israeli city's new Arab cultural center. The international invitation is a big deal for the government-funded group, primarily because their budget is up for a review and in an age when the bottom line easily trumps the classical Egyptian music the octet plays, there's a good chance that, after 25 years, the orchestra will be silenced for good. But if their reception at the airport is any indication, the Israelis may care even less: Their hosts have clearly forgotten about their arrival, and rather than contacting their embassy, Tewfiq insists they shift for themselves and arrange their own transportation to their destination. The band's lanky, Chet Baker loving ladies' man Khaled (Saleh Bakri) is too busy flirting with the woman at the information desk to notice that she's put the band on the bus to Beit Hatikvah instead of Petach Tikva, and by the time Tewfiq realizes the error, it's too late: The band, spiffy in its immaculate sky-blue military-style uniforms, is stranded in a small desert town, and the next bus isn't until the following morning. Luckily, they're taken in by local cafe owner Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), forthright, frankly sensuous divorcee who first offers them lunch, then a place to stay for the night. She'll put Tewfiq and Khaled in her small apartment, and arranges for the rest of the orchestra to stay with acquaintances; Simon and three of his bandmates wind up in the home Itzik (Rubi Moscovich), an unemployed who lives with his parents and whose wife is openly hostile toward her Arab guests. Tewfiq, meanwhile, is obviously uncomfortable with Dina's lack of inhibition -- she couldn't be anymore different from his late, Egyptian wife whom he still mourns -- but not entirely immune to her obvious charm.
"Not many people remember this [story]," the film announces at its characteristically modest outset. "It was not that important." Though Israeli writer-director Eran Kolirin maintains that level appealing understatement throughout this winning, enormously charismatic comedy, the story he tells is important in its own quiet way. With an artist's appreciation of color and composition, and a dead-pan sense of the absurd that's not too far from the poker-faced humor of Aki Kurismaki, Kolirin subtly hints at how age-old tensions and deeply ingrained distrust between Arabs and Jews affects even the simplest interactions, even between officially "friendly" Egyptians and Israelis for whom the events of 1967 and 1973 are still considered recent history. leave a comment --Ken Fox