Less is more

David Stratton

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

TWO new re­leases coin­ci­den­tally share a theme: the need for friend­ship and ac­com­mo­da­tion be­tween Arabs and Is­raelis. The Adam San­dler ve­hi­cle You Don’t Mess with the Zohan han­dles the theme with a crude­ness that is star­tling even by the very crude stan­dards of con­tem­po­rary Hol­ly­wood com­edy, while an Is­raeli film, The Band’s Visit , is a model of re­straint and sub­tlety. There are no prizes for guess­ing which will find the larger au­di­ence.

The Band’s Visit , a witty, el­e­gant and deeply af­fect­ing film from first- time Is­raeli wri­ter­di­rec­tor Eran Kolirin, is about the need to break down dis­trust and en­mity be­tween Arabs and Jews. Cut­ting through the seem­ingly end­less con­flict be­tween ex­trem­ists and provo­ca­teurs on both sides, Kolirin in­tro­duces or­di­nary char­ac­ters thrown to­gether in un­usual cir­cum­stances: Egyp­tians and Is­raelis who, af­ter ini­tial hos­til­ity and sus­pi­cion, dis­cover they have quite a lot in com­mon. It’s a pro­foundly hu­man­ist mes­sage, but the film tran­scends sus­pi­cions of glib lib­eral wish ful­fil­ment thanks to the vis­ual hu­mour and el­e­gance with which it has been made.

This is ev­i­dent from the open­ing images. Eight mem­bers of the Alexan­dria Cer­e­mo­nial Orches­tra, in their smart pale- blue uni­forms, are wait­ing pa­tiently at an Is­raeli air­port to be col­lected. Un­der the lead­er­ship of the be­nign yet stern Taw­fiq ( Sas­son Gabai), they have come to give a con­cert at the Arab Cul­tural Cen­tre in the town of Beta Tikva, but there’s ob­vi­ously been a break­down in com­mu­ni­ca­tion. The men, the youngest of whom is Khaled ( Saleh Bakri), are awk­ward, un­easy, far from their familiar sur­round­ings and in en­emy ter­ri­tory.

Taw­fiq, proud and aloof, de­cides he will lead them to their des­ti­na­tion with­out out­side help, but un­for­tu­nately the bus they take drops them off at Peta Tikva, an ex­tremely small desert com­mu­nity where most of the so­cial ac­tiv­ity cen­tres on the cafe run by the supremely self­con­fi­dent Dina ( Ronit Elk­a­betz), who treats the dis­placed strangers with a mix­ture of dis­dain and com­pas­sion, leav­ened with a tart, cheeky sense of hu­mour. There are no more buses that day, she ex­plains, so she in­vites Taw­fiq and Khaled to stay overnight at her apart­ment and finds ac­com­mo­da­tion among her friends for the other six.

The rest of the film de­picts the break­ing down of fear and sus­pi­cion. Vis­i­tors and hosts share a love of mu­sic ( a scene in which Arabs and Jews come to­gether to sing Gersh­win’s sub­lime Sum­mer­time is a mem­o­rable one), and Khaled, a ladies’ man, is able to as­sist his im­ma­ture, so­cially in­ept Jewish friend Papi ( Shlomi Avra­ham) in the mys­ter­ies of courtship at a roller disco: a se­quence that is both funny and touch­ing.

En­hanc­ing the gen­tle com­edy is the pre­cise and per­fectly framed vis­ual style em­ployed by Kolirin and cin­e­matog­ra­pher Shai Gold­man. De­spite what was pre­sum­ably a tight bud­get, the film tran­scends its lim­i­ta­tions with the beauty and wit of its images, evok­ing the dry com­edy of Fin­nish mas­ter Aki Kau­ris­maki. Im­pec­ca­bly acted, The Band’s Visit is an as­trin­gent tonic and a re­minder that, some­times, big is­sues can best be tack­led through in­ti­mate hu­man sto­ries.

* * * AL­THOUGH You Don’t Mess with the Zohan ul­ti­mately has the same mes­sage as The Band’s Visit , San­dler and his di­rec­tor Den­nis Du­gan use the sledge­ham­mer approach.

San­dler plays the ti­tle char­ac­ter, an Is­raeli sol­dier so adept at killing Arab ter­ror­ists that he at­tacks their bases sin­gle­handed ( th­ese scenes are sup­posed to be hi­lar­i­ous). Fed up with all the fight­ing, Zohan fakes his own death at the hands of a Pales­tinian strong­man ( John Tur­turro, re­ally slum­ming it) and moves to New York. There, he wants to be­come a hair­dresser but spends most of his time hav­ing sex with grate­ful old women. He also falls in love with a beau­ti­ful Pales­tinian wo­man ( Emmanuelle Chriqui), who runs the salon where he works.

This is a com­edy that so rev­els in its po­lit­i­cal in­cor­rect­ness that when ri­val Arab and Jewish shop­keep­ers get to­gether, all they can talk about is hav­ing sex with Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal fig­ures or their wives ( or daugh­ters). The chief vil­lain, a mer­ce­nary who hates Arabs and Jews ( and blacks, and just about ev­ery­body else) is por­trayed as a Mel Gib­son fan whose favourite movies in­clude Lethal Weapon and What Women Want .

Oc­ca­sion­ally the film is so bad it’s al­most funny, if you think a scene in which a cat is used as a foot­ball is funny. When in doubt the film­mak­ers re­sort to the crud­est jokes, en­sur­ing a lit­tle of the Zohan goes a very long way.

* * * IN up­dat­ing the 1960s Mel Brooks- Buck Henry television se­ries Get Smart , which spoofed the James Bond films of the era, di­rec­tor Peter Se­gal and his team have wrought plenty of changes, no­tably mak­ing Maxwell Smart ( Steve Carell) quite a bit smarter. But the ma­te­rial, so steeped in Cold War sen­si­bil­i­ties, doesn’t work as well to­day.

The ac­tion scenes, of which there are many, are rather rou­tinely han­dled: the cli­mac­tic race against time to save the US pres­i­dent from as­sas­si­na­tion dur­ing a con­cert of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy is a bla­tant rip- off of Hitch­cock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Luck­ily the cast is ex­cel­lent. Carell is an ami­able hero with a sure sense of comic tim­ing, Anne Hath­away is ex­cel­lent as his re­source­ful side­kick, and Dwayne ( the Rock) John­son is very funny as Con­trol’s su­per- agent.

Even bet­ter are the ac­tors in smaller roles: Alan Arkin as Con­trol’s chief, Ter­ence Stamp as smooth- talk­ing vil­lain Siegfried, and James Caan as the be­fud­dled pres­i­dent who has dif­fi­culty pro­nounc­ing the word nu­clear. Th­ese ami­able ac­tors el­e­vate what may oth­er­wise have been a rather or­di­nary ex­er­cise in nos­tal­gia for au­di­ences still fond of the bum­bling Don Adams ( the orig­i­nal Maxwell Smart) and his mis­ad­ven­tures.

Cul­tural ex­change: Ronit Elk­a­betz and Sas­son Gabai in a scene from The Band’s Visit

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