In The Band’s Visit (2007) the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arrives at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel for a concert at a cultural center in Petach Tikva. No one is there to meet them; the arrangements they expect have not been made. A pronunciation mistake when asking for the bus lands them in the obscure town of Beit Hatikva. Stranded there, they seek assistance from a coffee shop owner, who finds them lodging for the night. The film follows the individual band members’ attempts to be good guests, as they interact with Israelis who have their own troubles. It is a quiet little film that engages with issues of hope and despair, youth and aging, love and loneliness.
The dialogue in the film is largely in English, since that is the language the band members and the Israelis have in common. There is also some dialogue in Arabic and Hebrew, with subtitles.
The Band’s Visit won 8 awards out of 13 nominations for Israeli Film Academy Awards, including Best Film of 2007. It won three awards at Cannes, as well as many other international awards. It was nominated as the Israeli entry for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2008, but was disqualified because so much of the dialogue is in English.
Too often Americans, including American Jews, think of the Middle East in terms of stereotypes: Chalutzim [Israeli pioneers] who are valiant and larger-than-life, Israeli soldiers, Arab terrorists, or Arab victims. The Band’s Visit portrays a group of ordinary Israelis and ordinary Egyptian musicians, all of whom are wonderfully human. This is a gentle film full of insight into the human situation.
By the way, while Petach Tikva is a real place (and a very interesting one — check the wikipedia link!) the town of Beit HaTikva in the film is fictional. Its name is ironic: it means “House of Hope.”
For a different Jewish take on this film, check out the review at chizfilm.net.
Driving Miss Daisy (1989) is an Oscar winning movie based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by by Alfred Uhry. It recounts a 25-year relationship between an elderly Jewish woman (Daisy, played by Jessica Tandy) and an elderly African-American man (Houk, played by Morgan Freeman) in Atlanta, GA. Their story begins uneasily, as Miss Daisy’s son (played by Dan Aykroyd) decides she can no longer drive her own car, and hires Houk to drive her. Gradually they negotiate a working relationship which over time becomes a friendship. The film spans the years from 1948 until 1973, years of tremendous social change in America.
Wikipedia notes that this was the last PG-rated film to receive the Best Picture Oscar (at this writing, in 2009).
Some readers may be surprised that I list this film as a “must see” when I didn’t give that designation to Schindler’s List. I list it because this is a movie that nearly anyone can watch without having nightmares about it, and at the same time it portrays anti-Semitism and racial prejudice in both their overt and their more subtle forms.
At one key point in the film, a Alabama state trooper comments to his partner out of earshot of Daisy and Houk that she is an “old Jew woman” being driven by an “old n—r man.” The menace in that scene, and in a later scene of the Temple bombing in Atlanta make it clear that Daisy and Houk have more in common than may have been apparent at the outset. Complicating the matter, though, is the fact that Daisy is very much a product of her time: her own racist and classist inclinations are a barrier between the two almost to the end of the film. The greatness of this film lies in its focus on the humanity of Houk and Daisy as they navigate their times and make discoveries about one another, without a need to sugarcoat Daisy.
This film also serves as a reminder that while some American Jews did indeed support the civil rights movement at great risk to themselves and their communities, that history of risk does not obviate the need, then and now, for each individual to examine his or her own attitudes and behavior, and to make teshuvah (a profound change) if need be.
Perhaps the most wonderful thing about Driving Miss Daisy is that it deals with all these very serious issues with a light hand and a great deal of humor. A must see!
The Frisco Kid (1979) tells the tale of Rabbi Avram Belinski, played by Gene Wilder, who travels from Poland to San Francisco in 1850. Along the way he is set upon by robbers, befriended by the Amish, set upon by wild animals, befriended by a bank robber, set upon by Indians, befriended by Indians, and so on. The robber who befriends the rabbi is played by Harrison Ford (before his Indiana Jones days — in fact, Wilder claims in his autobiography that Ford was cast in the role partly because of his performance in this film.) It is a classic buddy film: a mismatched pair meet cute, make a journey, and are both changed by the experience. It was directed by Robert Aldritch (Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard.)
This is a very funny, very thoughtful movie about the challenges of living a Jewish life in a non-Jewish environment. Rabbi Belinski appears to be an innocent at first, but there is much more to him: he is insistent on his devotion to Torah and Jewish values, and his approach to both fortune and misfortune is informed by that devotion.
Bob Bloom of the Lafayette Courier & Post dismissed the film as “sterotypically offensive” in its depiction of Jews and Indians, but both the script and Gene Wilder’s portrayal of the rabbi go beyond the stereotypes (which are played for laughs, true) into the values behind the stereotypes. “What would you trade for Torah?” the Indian chief asks the rabbi. (The depiction of the Indians in this movie is another matter, I confess. The Indians in this picture are not characters, but mere devices.)
Much of the humor in the film is “inside” Jewish humor — if you “get” the jokes, rest assured, you are beginning to get a feel for cultural Judaism.
Try watching the film for moments when the rabbi does something that surprises or annoys the other characters: what Jewish value is expressed in his choice?