My only explanation is that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hates the Israeli film industry. Thanks to the stringent enforcement of an arbitrary rule involving how much of what language is spoken onscreen, the fairly brilliant comedy The Band's Visit was rendered ineligible for the arcane Foreign Language Film Oscar, leaving a must-see film without the single best advertisement that a non-American film can ever receive.

It wouldn't have won, mind you. It's much too dry and removed for the Academy's tastes. If they were going to reward a film about the tension between Israel and its Arab neighbors, it would have to be a searing melodrama with lots of tears and misunderstandings, and probably a tragic death or two. The Band's Visit isn't those things. There is not a single moment in the whole movie that explicitly acknowledges the political situation, and it's about as far from melodrama as it is possible to be: both in tone and in form, it's closer to the anti-comedies of Aki Kaurismรคki than anything. Things don't "happen," per se; more like, characters are put in situations which may or may not generate a conflict, and the unblinking, mostly unmoving camera observes them until they have responded to the situation. Insofar as it's funny - it's frequently hilarious, if you're in just exactly the right frame of mind - it's funny because any human activity is at least conceptually amusing.

On paper, it seems that the humor is all of that cringing, awkward "is this really happening?" style that Americans probably know best from The Office, but this is only true in spots. The key difference between that type of comedy and the film is that The Band's Visit has much more genuine and immediate affection for its characters, who aren't responsible for their misfortunes and therefore aren't judged so harshly. It's almost sweet, really, once you get through the elliptical narrative and the sometimes unforgiving visuals. Without a clear plot, without visual editorialising, and without even much dialogue - the characters' common language is English that nobody speaks well, so they mostly stay silent - our attention is focused just on the characters, not what they do or why they do it, but how. It's a film of subtleties, where the way a person stands or chews food tells more about their soul than any exposition could. It's all delicate, but infinitely rewarding.

The Band's Visit presents itself as based on a true story (it doesn't matter at all - everything that makes the film great is necessarily invented) that most people don't remember, because it wasn't very important - words presented to us even before the first shot. An eight-man police band from Alexandria, Egypt is bound for the grand opening of an Arab Cultural Center in Israel. Nobody is at the airport to pick them up, and a bit of bad information sends them to the wrong town, where as one local puts it, there's "no Arab culture, no Israeli culture, no culture at all." They've missed the last bus, and there's no choice but to wait overnight. The owner of a small diner, Dina (Ronit Elkabetz) houses the band's leader, Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai) and the young, flirty trumpet player Khaled (Saleh Bakri); the rest of the band stays with the family of a man, who we figure out without having to be told fought in the 1967 war.

That's pretty much all that "happens." All of the characters do things to kill the time, and this causes them to change - not in some Very Special Episode sense of changing, but because everything we do changes us somehow. The film isn't very insistent on any sort of emotional upheaval; in fact the film isn't very insistent on anything at all. There is a very pervasive sense in the movie, helped considerably by its minimalist visuals, that these non-events would be happening whether we watch them or not, and it doesn't seem like the film is causing anything at all. In other words, events are driving themselves, not some Godlike filmmaker, and this is why, in a film about Egyptian Arabs causing a significant disruption to the lives of a half-dozen Israelis, there is no active mention of the 1967 war or anything else that makes life in the Middle East so swell and politically dull. That's also why this is one of the best films about the tensions in that region I've ever seen: all that tension is sublimated, leaking out in tiny drips here and there, but never stated. After all, it's very much in the interests of every single character involved to not call attention to this elemental situation. Instead, we glimpse it around the edges, such as a brilliantly awkward dinner at a restaurant where Dina is clearly trying to shock what she thinks of as the yokels while Tewfiq is trying desperately not to be seen. Mostly, there's only the self-conscious cheer of people who want very badly not to be in conflict. Ah, diplomacy!

All that is par for the course with the film, a descriptive rather than proscriptive work of art, imparting no themes nor ideas other than the ones we want to tease out of it. It's just a comedy of manners about a band stuck in the wrong small town. That's all it has to be. The Band's Visit doesn't insist on anything, and that, in this case, is the sign of wisdom.