LITTLE ROCK Fans of filmic curiosities are likely to be alternately perplexed and amused by Lebanese writer-director Nadine Labaki’s wildly uneven but frequently entertaining Where Do We Go Now?, which might best be described as an updating of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.
That play, you may recall, involves the title character organizing a strike - the withholding of sexual favors - by the women of Greece in order to end the seemingly interminable Peloponnesian War. In Labaki’s modernized version, the action is transposed to a rural village in the Middle East in the early days of the 21st century, and the long-standing conflict is between the Christians and Muslims who worship side by side and mostly co-exist in relative harmony, although the movie’s opening scene - a choreographed march of black clad widows, Muslims and Christians, to the graveyard - indicates that such was not always the case.
In fact, it turns out the women of the unnamed and remote mountain village (in an unnamed country that looks a lot like Lebanon) have long conspired to preserve the peace, taking full advantage of their relative isolation. They are cut off from the rest of the world by land mines that occasionally explode a luckless goat; the only way in or out is a narrow passage barely large enough to accommodate a motorcycle.
But the arrival of a satellite dish promises to complicate things. The communal television, positioned on the only hilltop that provides adequate reception, not only pulls in diversionary entertainment products, it also airs the news and its nightly reports of sectarian violence.
Not that the men in the village really need outside agitation to resume their hostilities - all it takes is a perceived slight, or an accident that breaks the cross in the village church, to revive their belligerence. And, once revived, it is a small step to escalation.
Meanwhile, the women remain in solidarity, gathering in the cafe run by Amale (director Labaki), a handsome Christian widow who spends much of her day flirting with the Muslim handyman (Julien Farhat) she has engaged to renovate the place. One of the early indications that this isn’t the usual thing is a Bollywood-style musical number depicting Amale’s romantic fantasy.
But the film isn’t a musical, or at least it isn’t consistently a musical. It isn’t consistently anything - it swings wildly from broad slap sticky comedy and melodrama to biting social satire that edges up to the notion that religion might be the root of most of the problems before suffering what is either a failure of nerve or a necessary concession to the censors.
Silliness scrapes against fatalistic resignation in the film, and the most serious threat to the village’s peace - the death of a young man who is caught in a crossfire outside the village - feels like it’s imported from another, more somber film.And I never quite understood exactly how the most complicated scheme to keep the peace was supposed to work - the women organize a dialogue session in which their men should air their grievances, but thanks to the hashish brownies (another musical number accompanies their baking) and a troupe of adorable Ukrainian strippers the women supply, it turns into a mildly risque party.
There’s a final twist that justifies the title, but the film isn’t really all that concerned with politics, or even the dynamic between long suffering women and their barbarous men.
Anyway, it’s a weird experience and it has pleased crowds all over the world; it has won several film festival audience awards, including last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and was screened in competition at Cannes, where it won an award designed to honor life-affirming values and the spirit of journalism. (Why not?)
It’s the sort of movie people obviously want to like - a mess, but a cheerful one.
Where Do We Go Now?
Nadine Labaki, Julien Farhat, Claude Baz Moussawbaa, Layla Hakim, Yvonne Maalouf, Antoinette Noufaily
PG-13, for thematic drug material, some sensuality and violent images
100 minutes In Arabic, Russian and English, with English subtitles
MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 08/03/2012
Print Headline: Where Do We Go Now