Eran Kolirin's debut feature, The Band's Visit, tells the story of an Egyptian police band that's invited to perform at an Arab cultural center in Israel, but arrives to find no welcoming committee, and—at first—no help from the locals. Through a series of wrong turns, they end up in a small town, where the troupe's leader, Sasson Gabai, meets friendly café owner Ronit Elkabetz, who offers to put them up for the night. Over the course of the evening, the Israelis and the Egyptians feel each other out, bonding over some topics while still repeatedly hitting a wall of mutual distrust. Kolirin is particularly interested in the interaction between Elakbetz and Gabai–the former thinks of herself as a free spirit, and would love to blow her neighbors' minds by befriending an Arab, while the latter is the kind of prim man who can't help but be shocked by his hostesses' bare feet and painted toenails, even though he's too polite to say anything about them.
Tonally, The Band's Visit steps gingerly on the line between "sweetly humane" and "cloyingly quirky," but Kolirin pulls back the reins just enough, maintaining control by expressing as much with his framing as with his script. There's something powerful about the image of eight men in powder-blue suits, toting black instrument cases across beige sand, flanked by industrial gray housing. Kolirin emphasizes the "otherness" of the Egyptians to clarify how lost and lonely they feel, and to show how hard it is for them to make a natural connection, one not based on political grandstanding. As the night wears on, the Egyptians and Israelis sing jazz songs together, and talk about fishing and how best to hit on girls. The ancient Arab-Jew conflict is the big subject none of them wants to discuss, yet if they don't acknowledge it, what do they really have to say? Rather a lot, as it happens.