The intentions are admirable but the result disappointing in Nadine Labaki’s “Lysistrata”-inspired tale about the efforts of the women in an isolated Lebanese village to prevent their men-folk, divided by religion, from killing each other. “Where Do We Go Now?” deserves credit for tackling a timely, important subject in a quirky, imaginative way. Unfortunately the combination doesn’t gel, especially with an ending that’s not just incredibly simplistic but curiously insensitive.
There’s a ramshackle feel to the picture, which begins with an odd dance by a group of women, all dressed in funereal black, in a cemetery. It’s the final resting place for the dearly departed of the village, whose inhabitants are divided between those who attend the Christian church and those who are summoned to prayer at the mosque across the square. A remote town surrounded by religious civil war, since it’s been virtually cut off from the outside world it’s managed to maintain a fragile internal peace, thanks to the efforts of the priest, the imam and the women, including the beautiful widow Amal (Labaki), who runs the local café, and the mayor’s feisty wife (Yvonne Maalouf), who controls things far more than her blundering husband.
There’s a host of other characters peopling the place—two boys, Roukoz and Nassim, who bike over the rickety bridge to pick up supplies for the villagers; Muslim handyman Rabib (Julian Farhat), who’s sweet on Christian Amal; and Nassim’s volatile brother Issam. The community is constantly plagued by minor incidents that threaten the two groups’ ability to maintain their relatively peaceful coexistence, but, aided by the religious leaders, the women successfully defuse them, at one point even hiring a group of exotic Ukrainian dancers to visit the village and divert the men’s attention from their squabbles. But when Nassim is killed on one of the boys’ shopping expeditions, the women realize that it will take a major intervention to avoid bloodshed—one that involves drugging their men with hashish and remaking the town’s religious complexion.
There’s lots of local color in the movie, and plenty of eccentric characters, as well as a welcome pacifist message for a war-torn Middle East. But structurally “Where Do We Go Now?” is pretty much a mess, clumsily juxtaposing farce and tragedy without finding a way to meld them satisfactorily, and Labaki encourages her cast to give exaggerated, in-your-face performances. Technically the picture captures the dusty, desolate locale well (Christophe Offenstein was cinematographer, shooting mostly in the Lebanese village of Taybeh), but the result would hardly be termed attractive.
Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the film, however, is the resolution, which suggests that altering one’s religious belief is as simple as changing clothes. It makes for an amusing final reel, but one that’s actually a might unsettling. Perhaps that’s why Labaki opted for what seems a very abrupt finish, tied to the title.
“Where Do We Go Now?” is one of those films one would like to recommend but can’t, a picture with good motives that doesn’t live up to them.