The Profound Significance of the Insignificant “Right Here”
I watched a film with some friends last night entitled The Band’s Visit. It was funny, painful and profound. It’s one of those films that is meant to slowly draw you into an experience rather than keep you interested in a storyline (of which there is very little). Think of this film as an Sartrean existentialist work of art rather than a “movie.” (It actually reminded me of Sartre’s play, “No Exit,” but with a more hopeful message).
The Band’s Visit is presumably about a small, fading “orchestra” (of 8 people) from Egypt that takes the wrong bus to get to a concert and ends up in an obscure desert city in Israel. But the film is really about the nature of human existence. Two groups of people from different cultures that are politically strained are forced by circumstances to relate to each other. In the comical and painful futility of their efforts to overcome their alienation, poignant moments of common humanity subtly break through. Most significantly, viewers are brought to the realization that the characters in the film each share a common sense of emptiness and alienation. In fact, the most profound aspect of this film, in my estimation, is the brilliant manner in which it helps viewers experience this shared emptiness and alienation. The use of repeated, sustained visuals of the utterly barren desert city and of painfully long moments of awkward silence creates a sense of desperate vacancy and loneliness that is unforgettable.
For me, the most profound moment of the film was when one of the Egyptian band members walks into the room of a lonely, unemployed Jewish man with a strained marriage watching his baby daughter sleep. The only thing we know about the Egyptian man is that for 18 years he’d been holding out hope that he’d someday become the conductor of the orchestra and that he was beginning to realize this would probably never happen. Like everyone else in this film, he was a man on the precipice of despair. The Egyptian had earlier played a concerto on his clarinet for the Israeli and his family and had informed them that he wrote the concerto years before but could never manage to finish it. He blamed his inability on lack of time, but you knew the blockage was due to something much more profound.
As the Egyptian and Israeli together watch the baby sleep, the Israeli suddenly makes a suggestion as to how his new friend could end his concerto. He suggests that the musician end his concerto right here, “not sad, not happy, a small room, a lamp, a bed, a child sleeping, and tons of loneliness.” Not with something big and spectacular, nor with something sad and dramatic, but just here — in this room, with these walls, this lamp, these shades, this crib, this child, this moment — and tons of loneliness.
The Israeli then leaves the room while the Egyptian man continues to stare at the child. The child becomes a little restless, so he turns on her music box. As the music plays, an ever-so-slight smile comes across the man’s face — the only real smile in the whole movie. The Egyptian starts humming what you know will be the end of his concerto. In this moment it becomes clear that he’d been unable to finish his concerto because, as with his life, he’d been holding out for something more spectacular and dramatic.
The ending of this man’s concerto, like the significance of this man’s life — and all of our lives — is found not in the spectacular or dramatic, but in the absolutely insignificance of right here, enveloped by tons of loneliness. This man had been missing the profound significance of the insignificant precisely because he’d been holding out for something more climatic.
As one who believes in the final victory of the love of the triune God, I can’t fully embrace the message of The Band’s Visit as the final word about human existence. I don’t believe alienation and emptiness is our most profound common denominator or that it is the final word about human existence. But I can embrace — I feel I must embrace — its message that the most profound significance of our lives is found in the insignificance of right here.
It’s one of the central messages of the Gospel. One would have thought that the omnipotent Creator would put himself on display and “win the day” with something specularly big and dramatic. Instead, God’s most significant act is becoming a little baby, born to an insignificant, unwed, peasant mother, lying in an insignificant stable, located somewhere in an insignificant desert city, surrounded by “tons of loneliness.” The omnipotent Creator then lets himself get crucified as a common criminal on an insignificant hill, again enveloped with “tons of loneliness.”
We’re tempted to think God is displayed most profoundly in the big — large, energized crowds; revivals with impressive music and spectacular displays of power; gigantic, powerful mega-churches led by impressive personalities and run with ingeniously effective programs. So too, we’re tempted to think that the flow of history is determined by the big — enthusiastic national political conventions; impressive charismatic leaders with great ideas making even greater promises; mighty nations with giant armies fighting important wars. And we’re tempted to think the significance of our own lives is found in the big– how successful we are; the reputation we acquire; the measurable impact our contributions make.
The message of The Band’s Visit — and a central aspect of the message of the Gospel — is that this way of thinking is indeed a temptation; one that will torment us, as it did the Egyptian musician, if we fail to resist it.
The truth is that the end of the concerto is found in the insignificance of right here, enveloped in “tons of loneliness.” If we can embrace this truth and let go of the hope for the climatic, we too will smile.