Lebanon’s official Best Foreign Language Film selection for the 84th Academy Awards, Where Do We Go Now? juggles comic fantasy and politicized drama in telling a story of religious strife held at bay by the better angels of women’s nature. Its commingled tonalities don’t always quite mesh, but if one sticks with it there is some off-kilter delight herein that cuts against erroneous notions of foreign films tackling such big social issues as necessarily staid and stuffy affairs.
Directed by Caramel multi-hyphenate Nadine Labaki (above), Where Do We Go Now?‘s insistent message of tolerance and coexistence should make it a strong arthouse performer for especially the older urban demographic, though any wider breakout is unlikely.
Set in an indeterminate time, Labaki’s movie unfolds in a remote Lebanese village, virtually sealed off from its surroundings and accessible only via a thin bridge in severe disrepair. There, church and mosque stand side by side, and the women, whose friendships more naturally transcend the religious fault lines of their community, act as a collective leavening influence, managing and rerouting the testosterone-fueled energy and impulses of the men in their village.
Widowed Christian café owner Amal (Labaki) and Muslim handyman Rabih (Julian Farhat) nurse a bit of a mutual crush, but news of religious violence from the outside world darkens the town’s mood. A series of accidents and misunderstandings ensue, and when a terrible accident befalls one of the children who serve as an errand boy, the village is pushed closer to getting caught up in a sectarian bloodbath. The mayor’s headstrong wife, Yvonne (Yvonne Maalouf), feigns a miracle connection and chat with God, and the women turn to increasingly fanciful ploys, eventually landing upon distracting belly dancing and pot-infused pastries, the former by way of a busload of mock-stranded Ukrainian strippers the women pay to vacation in their town.
While it doesn’t deal in abstractions, Where Do We Go Now? works best if one accepts it as the working draft of a kind of cinematic treatise, or a flavored, chewable children’s vitamin. A sort of cheeky moralizing is its aim, so it takes a while to get into, and additionally lags some in the middle, suffering from ill-conceived scenes that pull viewers away from the crux of the story.
While it cycles through plenty of entertaining schemes of distraction hatched by the women, Labaki and her screenwriting collaborators aren’t interested in digging much down into the lasting consequences of these acts. So the film takes on the feeling of a cutesy serial, punctuated by some serious rage. The ideas and effort often trump Ladaki’s big picture execution, in other words. Likewise, the movie’s gender politics is necessarily broad, in order to support the conceit, which puts a twist on the classic comedy Lysistrata.
The film mixes in non-professionals alongside working actors, with mixed results that, when they do work, give Where Do We Go Now? a charged sense of spontaneity and energy. Labaki and Baz Moussawbaa are particularly engaging, and exude a nice chemistry together. As its title indicates, the film ends on a note of cautious optimism. (Sony Pictures Classics, PG-13, 100 minutes)