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THE BAND’S VISIT (BIKUR HA-TIZMORET)

This Israeli film is gentle and soft-spoken, but it speaks volumes about the possibility of reconciliation among ordinary people in one of the most politically volatile and violent regions of the world. In terms of its basic message, Eran Kolirin’s “The Band’s Visit” is reminiscent of “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming” (1966). But its modesty and deadpan style stand in stark contrast to the large-scale, frantic quality of that Norman Jewison film, and ultimately it’s the more winning and affecting film of the two.

It presents a very simple tale about an Egyptian police orchestra, led by solemn, spit-and-polish conductor Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai), arriving in Israel to play at the opening of an Arab cultural center, getting lost, and winding up at a remote town of aging concrete apartment buildings in the desert. Finding themselves stranded, the players reluctantly accept lodging from the locals, Tewfiq and young ladies’ man Khaled (Saleh Bakri) staying with Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), the owner of a small diner, and clarinetist Simon (Khalifa Natour) and the others rooming with sad-sack Itzik (Rubi Moskovitz) and his family.

Of course, over the course of the evening, unexpected bonding occurs. The outgoing Dina takes reserved Tewfiq out to eat and they share confidences about their past lives. Simon and Itzik discuss unfulfilled dreams amidst family disorder. And Khaled accompanies Papi (Shlomi Avraham), Dina’s socially awkward young assistant, on his blind date to a skate rink, offering him some helpful advice along the way. By the time they part the next morning, they’ve all come to understand the others—and themselves—a bit better, and we sense that the hostility the two “sides” are supposed to feel toward one another has been lessened, if not entirely erased.

There are the obvious lessons here: that communication is the key to acceptance, that small acts of kindness can have enormous effect, that music can bridge cultural and political divides. But Kolirin doesn’t broadcast them at high volume; he lets them emerge naturally, through tiny gestures and brief snatches of dialogue. His use of long takes and pauses is nicely judged, creating an introspective, wryly humorous tone that’s both engaging and gently poignant.

He’s aided by a cast that savors the script’s nuances. Gabai (who looks strikingly like Ben Kingsley) and Elkabetz play off one another beautifully, especially on their evening out, the Bakri-Avraham pas de deux is delightfully deadpan, and together Natour and Moskovitz create a truly pained sense of lost opportunities. And they’re surrounded by supporting performers who, while hardly the last word in finesse, seem remarkably truthful.

“The Band’s Visit” isn’t slick in technical terms, either, but the gritty naturalness of the picture is yet another of its strengths, further emphasizing the simple, unadorned humanity that‘s at the root of the story, and that makes this so charming and touching a film.

In case you’re wondering why a picture this good isn’t among the Oscar nominees this year, it’s because AMPAS declared it ineligible in the foreign language category because too much of its dialogue is spoken in English—a common tongue between Israelis and Egyptians. Just chalk it up to another act of idiocy on the part of the Academy.

4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS (4 LUNI, 3 SAPTAMANI Si 2 ZILE)

With its long takes, stationary compositions and unadorned dialogue, Cristian Mungiu’s grimly realistic story about the difficulty of securing a secret abortion in communist Romania might initially seem like a simple exercise in cinema verite, but to understand it merely in those terms shortchanges its artistry. “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”—the precise time the pregnancy to be terminated has progressed—skillfully employs an ultra-naturalistic style to make points about the suffocating character of the Ceausescu regime and, in particular, its treatment of women. The picture’s stripped-down style is integral to its substance.

The picture opens in a dismal university dormitory where Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) is trading and borrowing in preparation for taking her withdrawn roommate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) to procure an illegal abortion. A long scene in which she tries to get a hotel room captures with stunning simplicity the callousness of the bureaucratic state in which they’re trapped, and her succeeding meeting with the sinister abortionist Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov) quietly shows the equal indignity of having to deal with blackmarketeers.

But it’s the following sequence with Otilia, Gabita and Bebe in the hotel room that’s the picture’s emotional centerpiece, a portrait of emotional emptiness, brutality and degradation all the more wrenching for being so matter-of-fact. Inserting a scene showing Odilia’s visit to her boyfriend’s home the same night to help celebrate his mother’s birthday, with the prattle of family and friends contrasting with the deadly serious business happening back at the hotel, only deepens the sense of anguish. And the final reel, in which Odilia must return to her roommate and deal with the result of the abortion, is presented with stunning directness.

This is obviously not a film that’s easy to watch, but it is one of remarkable power. Without calling attention to themselves, the performers fit perfectly into Mungiu’s near-documentary approach, with Marinca in particular achieving the sort of realism rarely encountered on screen, and the crew, headed by cinematographer Oleg Mutu, prove that the most ostensibly simple of devices can carry enormous weight when skillfully employed.

In any environment the narrative of “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” would be compelling, but situating it in the context of Ceausescu’s waning days, in a Romania of shabby buildings and dark, deserted streets, only increases its intensity. This is a searing indictment of a society gone wrong as well as a harrowing personal story, and the fact that it’s not among the Oscar nominees for best foreign-language film is yet another Academy scandal.