Somewhere, in the rocky wilds of Lebanon, lies a tiny village so isolated from neighboring communities that the residents can barely keep up on the latest trends. Cell phones don’t exist there. Reception on the village’s sole television set is spotty at best. Newspapers are a luxury item. Why, these folks aren’t even aware that Muslims and Christians are supposed to hate each other to death. Why should they, really? The villagers have known one another for generations. They speak the same language, they eat the same food. The only noticeable difference is that they go to different buildings for worship—a mosque and a church plopped down right next to each other in the village square.
This isn’t purely a product of rural naivety, mind you. In truth, it’s a carefully calculated conspiracy on the part of the town’s female residents. Newspapers are precisely censored and radio broadcasts that might mention the Middle East’s long-standing religious/ethnic conflict are distractingly shouted down. None the wiser, the bumbling menfolk go on about their neighborly duty with one another—Muslim and Christian alike.
This village is, sadly, an entirely fictional construct—the unnamed fairyland of director/co-writer Nadine Labaki and her host of collaborators. The film begins, cheekily enough, by turning a black-clad funeral procession into an avant-garde dance number. From there, we meet the villagers—the usual colorful collection of oddballs and dreamers. Topping the list is hottie widow Amale (Ms. Labaki herself), who runs the local café, and Rabih (Julian Farhat), the neighborhood handyman. Sparks seem to be flying between the two as Rabih fixes up Amale’s shabby dining spot.
That romance is nipped in the bud, though, when an accident damages the wooden cross in the local church. Naturally, the Christian congregation blames the Muslims across the road. This misunderstanding leads to a sudden unraveling of the village’s fragile peace. Amale, being Christian, and Rabih, being Muslim, are right at the heart of it. Pranks escalate into fights, fights elevate into open warfare, and before long, the men and the boys are out looking for guns with which to commit genocide. The women try everything in their arsenal to stave off the bloodshed—from faking a miracle to waylaying a busload full of Russian strippers. These distractions are only temporary, though. Nothing, it seems, can hold back the old hatreds.
Labaki has crafted a smart, witty, sincerely—if somewhat ungainly—mounted parable here. There are moments when Where Do We Go Now? reaches for the same madcap energy as Leonard Wibberley’s classic 1955 Cold War satire The Mouse That Roared (and its subsequent 1959 film starring Peter Sellers). Frequently, the film succeeds, cruising along on a cloud of comic subterfuge. But Labaki’s subject is far too serious to maintain the joviality for long. She tries to hold back the inevitable, but tragedy soon comes calling, and the film is obliged to up its ante with whiplash-inducing mood swings.
Labaki makes some bold moves, freely mixing humorous invention with dark drama. It works in stutters and starts. (A couple of additional song-and-dance numbers are arguably less successful than the first.) Unfortunately, the film’s writer-director-star is never quite strong enough to really call each faction on its shit. The ending does have a final, inventive trick up its sleeve. But the script takes it pretty easy on religion as a whole, chalking up most of the Middle East’s problems to overactive testosterone. Sadly, that doesn’t offer much of a solution. The real problem is two religions—nearly identical in origin, practice and belief—are asking devotees to eliminate everyone not in utter lockstep belief. Personally speaking, I would think the easiest, most direct solution would be to scrap the religious dogma altogether—but I’m afraid that’s far too radical an answer for this movie or the world at large.
On the whole, Where Do We Go Now? is a clever, amusing, occasionally beautiful think piece. It will be enthusiastically embraced by Western lovers of foreign cinema for whom these sorts of problems are a world away. The subject that the film tackles, though, may be a bit too thorny. It’s doubtful those in the thick of ancient religious warfare will hear this film’s message of tolerance or glean any sort of solution to millennia of bloodshed through its quirky mix of romance, comedy, musical numbers and heavy-handed melodrama.