A sectarian struggle between Christians and Muslims lies at the centre of this intermittently serious and slight comedy/drama/semi-musical. Lebanese auteure Nadine Labaki has upped the stakes for her second feature film, and the director of Caramel has this time perhaps bit off more than she can chew.
The set-up appears simple. A small town in rural Lebanon has been cut off from the rest of the country following years of civil strife – it is surrounded by landmines on all sides and the only bridge out of town is crumbling and wrapped in barbwire, too dangerous for many to cross. Within its social vacuum, the town has found an almost soap operatic level of fraternity, with Christians and Muslims co-existing peaceably.
This peace is disturbed when the town’s clever youths manage to get a TV signal atop a nearby hill, and arrange for a town viewing, à la the local cinema in times gone by. But when the TV brings news of turmoil between Muslims and Christians from across the country, ancient rivalries are rekindled and a cold war is drawn between men on either side. “Elsewhere is elsewhere,” insists the imam, but the message does not take. Soon pranks are committed against church and mosque alike, leading to an iconoclasm that threatens an outbreak of violence. It is up to the women – mothers and wives, Muslim and Christian – to keep the peace. Unwilling to sacrifice their friendships with one another and fearful of losing any more of their young men to fruitless bloodshed, they aim to settle the matter with a few pranks of their own.
Labaki, a truly feminist filmmaker, works on the old adage that if women ruled the world there would be no war, and spins a fun, sometimes harrowing, tale from it. The women’s attempt to calm the tidal wave of testosterone by inviting exotic dancers to visit the village plays like classic 1950s Hollywood comedy. But when tragedy strikes and the tone shifts, the film’s balance is upended – one can’t but feel Where Do We Go Now? wants to have its cake and eat it.
The film also struggles through Labaki’s decision (as well as directing she co-wrote the film, and fills the lead role) to make the film a musical… well, barely. Opening promisingly with a Pina Bausch-esque march of mourning by the town’s women to the local cemetery, where the throughway bisects the Christian and Muslim plots, the film manages to squeeze in only three more songs into its 110-minute running time. One wonders why they bothered, especially when two of those songs are related to Labaki’s character’s forbidden romance with a local Muslim, which becomes less and less the focus of the film as time passes, and is sadly never acceptably resolved.
But for all these problems, Labaki’s film is very sweet and well-meaning. Its message is all too simple, but it is very cleverly put forward, and the finale is quite the treat. Labaki gets solid performances across the board from her cast of dozens, and does not save all the best scenes for herself. Like Caramel before it, Where Do We Go Now? is shot in sumptuous browns, blues and yellows, and is always beautiful to watch.
Let down by its convolutions and ambitions, this remains a strong, powerful movie, and further secures Lakaki’s reputation as one of the most talented female filmmakers working today.
(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)