I wasn't wild about seeing The Band's Visit. From the publicity materials, it looked like another one of those watered-down, Hallmarky foreign-language films that have slowly seeped into the American box office, stuff like Like Water for Chocolate, Il Postino or Life Is Beautiful that appeals to wide audiences without ever rising above pure fluff. (Many of these films fell under Harvey Weinstein's scissors, and were each similarly shaped according to his commercial instincts.) But happily The Band's Visit has its own rhythms and personality apart from all this. It's a crowd-pleaser, to be sure, but an expertly crafted and hugely rewarding one.

Written and directed by Eran Kolirin, making his feature debut, the film is a member of that great, but underused genre: disparate personalities thrown together by unexpected circumstances, like Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944), Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men (1957) or John Hughes' The Breakfast Club (1985). The Band's Visit sets up its visual displacement right away, as the eight members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Band from Egypt wait at an Israeli airport, on an almost abandoned, sun-baked platform, vainly hoping that their hosts will pick them up. They stand, starch-stiff in their immaculate uniforms, silent instruments crated at their feet. The leader, Tawfiq (Sasson Gabai, also in Rambo III -- no kidding) decides to take action. He orders the band's youngest member, a tall ladies man, Khaled (Saleh Bakri) to get directions. But in speaking to an attractive girl behind a counter, he gets the wrong pronunciation and the band winds up in a desolate town on the far side of the country.