Where Do We Go Now?
Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki (who made the much lauded comedy "Caramel") takes a lingering and sometimes bitterly angry look at religious strife in her new film "Where Do We Go Now?" But this is not so much raging screed as cleverly dressed-up cri de coeur thanks to the war-of-the-sexes comedy that leavens the film.
In Ancient Greece, satirical playwright Aristophanes penned the bawdy "Lysistrata," in which woman, fed up with the bellicose ways of their men, refused them sex until they declared peace instead of war. Here, Labaki updates the plot: Christian and Muslim women alike seek to maintain the fragile peace of their village by shielding their men from news of religious sects battling it out in other towns. As tensions continue to mount due to a series of misunderstandings, the women resort to more desperate means, including hiring a troupe of Ukrainian exotic dancers and feeding the guys hash-laced treats.
Satire may be as old as civilization itself, but Labaki’s renovation of the ancient Greek play touches on more recent literary forms. She introduces the movie with a nursery rhyme about "a lonely town, mines scattered all around," references modern dance, and even allows her film to lapse into the musical genre once in a while. It’s as though, degree by degree, she’s trying to bring her war-torn nation into the current era, if only by reviewing the evolution of popular literary forms.
Underneath the hijinks are two entwined story threads. In one, Labaki’s character, a widowed mother named Amale, falls in love with Rabih (Julian Farhat), whom she’s hired to fix up her cafe. The rub: She’s a Christian, and he’s a Muslim. The village gossips, when not sniping at one another at the local dry goods store, and trade barbs over which one will convert, should the pair decide to marry.
The other story concerns the village’s young men--the up and coming generation, who will either continue the sporadic violence that fills the grave yard just outside the town’s limits, or else grown up to change the bloody tide of history. The kids seem to get along fine if left on their own; it’s when the outside world intrudes (via television), or when they venture out to get supplies and sample the pleasures of the big city, that trouble starts to boil up.
The movie’s faults lay pretty much with the story’s fault lines. The men bray and brawl over the slightest provocation; the women bear it all stoically, until they don’t, and then they raise a heart-broken outcry. (In one scene, Labaki chews the scenery as her character dresses down a group of guys for starting a fracas in her establishment.) There’s a partially effective metaphor at the movie’s heart about a damaged bridge that speaks to the community’s imperfect coexistence, but you have to wonder whether the village, and its people, might not be better off if that bridge were torn down and the outside world left to its own devices.
But that, really, may be sort of the point. The title of the movie raises the question that any skeptic might dare to pose after any similar tale of sly intervention to allay imminent bloodshed: Okay, here we all are, and we’ve decided we’re not going to kill each other for one more day. But what then? Is there any permanent solution, or any way out, other than to make the same choice again tomorrow, and every day afterwards? We might as well try humor and outrageous schemes to stave off disaster, the movie seems to be telling us, because sooner or later primordial male rage is bound to boil over.
Nursery rhymes and fairy tales in their classic form have dark, violent sides and don’t always end happily; even when they do, those happy endings are provisional. "Where Do We Go Now?" ends on a sobering note, but those who have seen the movie seem to get it: the film has taken the Cadillac People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival--a past predictor of Oscar glory.