Strangers in Strange Lands

In Bruges and The Band’s Visit reviewed.

Colin Farrell in In Bruges

In Bruges (Focus Features), the first feature film written and directed by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh (The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Beauty Queen of Lenane), is a jolly mess of a movie. Overplotted, choppy, and contrived, it nonetheless has a curious vitality that makes you wonder where McDonagh will go next.

Two hit men, Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson), are sent to hide out in Belgium’s best-preserved medieval city after a job goes wrong in London. They’re supposed to go sightseeing by day and hole up in their hotel room by night, awaiting a call from their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes). But Ray isn’t much for tourism; he declares Bruges a “shithole” and its museum of art treasures “rubbish by spastics” (though he does perk up when he gets a date with a beautiful Belgian girl, played by Clémence Poésy). Ken, the older and less impatiently priapic of the two, throws himself into exploring the cobblestoned, gargoyle-studded city, dragging Ray on boat tours and a visit to the Church of the Holy Blood.

That last stop proves a poor choice. Ray is still traumatized by his last hit job, in which the shooting of a priest (Ciarán Hinds) caused the accidental death of an innocent bystander. Consumed by guilt, Ray confesses to Ken that he’s contemplating whacking himself. Farrell, who just played a remarkably similar tortured killer for hire in Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream, finds just the right tone for this twitchy, funny, emotionally volatile thug; for once, he seems to know exactly what movie he’s in. So does Brendan Gleeson, the big, shambling, sad-eyed Irish actor known to American audiences mainly for his role in the last two Harry Potter movies.

The problem is, the audience has no idea what movie we’re in. In Bruges is neck-deep in atmosphere, awash in music (an overheated score from Carter Burwell), and jam-packed with references and tropes from Orson Welles, Quentin Tarantino, and David Mamet. When the boys happen on the set of a film being shot in Bruges, they’re told it’s a homage to Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now.Ralph Fiennes’ profane and pathologically angry crime boss is a straight-up lift from the Ben Kingsley role in Sexy Beast. And the presence of a resentful dwarf actor (Jordan Prentice) who’s forced to don humiliating costumes for dream sequences can only be a nod to Peter Dinklage’s memorable debut in Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion. Throw in a dead child, a pregnant innkeeper, and a gory shootout finale that can’t decide if it’s slapstick or melodrama, and you have three or four different pretty-good movies, none of which In Bruges quite adds up to be.

The Band’s Visit

Cooling one’s heels in a strange land is also the subject of The Band’s Visit (Sony Pictures Classics), an Israeli film that chronicles the trip of an Egyptian police band to Israel. A language mix-up lands the Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra in the wrong town: not the one where they were supposed to play a concert at the opening of the Arab Cultural Center, but a desert hick town where, as the local cafe owner, Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), tells them in broken English, there’s “not Israeli culture, not Arab, not culture at all.” As it happens, there’s no bus service until the next day, so the bandleader, Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai), accepts Dina’s offer to spend the night at her house with his trumpeter, Khaled (Saleh Bakri), while the rest of the band is housed with her friend Itzik (Rubi Moskovitz) and his wary family.

It’s Tewfiq who gets the best of the deal; Dina, as played by the wondrous Elkabetz (Late Marriage), is an earthy, husky-voiced sensualist, openly bored by her small-town life. She takes the prim, cautious Tewfiq out for a night on the town, while Khaled finds himself on an awkward, largely wordless double date at a near-empty roller disco. Any more plot exposition would get in this movie’s way. It’s a delicate parable, droll rather than funny, wise rather than smart. Eran Kolirin, debuting as a writer-director, has the deadpan sparseness of the Finnish Aki Kaurismaki, but his vision is gentler, less bleak; at moments, the movie is almost sentimental, but the performances save it every time.

If The Band’s Visit is a parable about Arab-Israeli relations, it’s only in the most oblique sense; really, the film’s subject is language and the difficult necessity of translation between cultures. All the interchanges between Egyptians and Israelis take place in the lingua franca of not-quite-perfect English, and the best moments happen outside language entirely: when Khaled helps an Israeli kid put the moves on a girl at the roller disco or when the band’s oboist finds the ending for his unfinished concerto. The Band’s Visit, which was briefly released in 2007, failed to qualify for an Oscar for best foreign-language film through a tellingly ironic technicality: Though made in Israel with Egyptian and Israeli actors, it contained too much English dialogue to be considered legitimately “foreign” by the academy.