Lebanese Comic Drama "Where Do We Go Now?" Draws Laughter and Tears Review

The powder keg sectarian situation in Lebanon, fraught with deeply complex issues of identity and belonging, should not make for easy subject matter. Yet Where Do We Go Now?, directed and co-written by Nadine Labaki, manages to portray Lebanon’s contentious realities in a quirkily entertaining story, whiplashing between laughter one moment and tears the next.

Where Do We Go Now? begins with a group of women in black marching to a cemetery. The women come from an unnamed hilltop village once wracked by violence but now enjoying peace. With news of religious strife in neighboring towns, however, peace becomes increasingly fragile. The women, Muslim and Christian alike, band together to defuse the tension with a stream of ever more antic tactics.

They start with faked possessions and progress to hiring a troupe of traveling Russian belly-dancers. These diversions, presented with a sense of wry absurdity, manage to charm. It also helps that these schemes let us watch the crew of mostly old to middle aged women in action, who deliver the best performances in the film. Ms. Labaki channels the familiar appeal of the nosy aunt who loves to gossip, realizing her in characters like Yvonne (Yvonne Maalouf) – a woman who wants to keep the village peace but still can’t resist using her role as a divinely possessed vessel to even the score with neighbors. Also extremely effective are the sporadic episodes when the cast breaks out in song. The audience’s comprehension may lag behind, but their eyes and ears certainly will not.

These moments of surreal hilarity jackknife into scenes of argument and violence. For example, over a ten minute stretch we are introduced to the splendidly random belly-dancers, and then with barely a transition we watch men blustering and fighting. These tonal dynamics will probably work for some viewers; comedy, melodrama, and tragedy in 110 minutes is after all a neat package. I found myself, however, wanting more of the absurdity because Ms. Labaki seemed to have firmest footing on that ground. The timing, delivery, juxtaposition of the alien (cigarette-smoking Russian babe, meet isolated Lebanese village), and bantering dialogue all felt fresh. Ridiculous, yet authentic.

In contrast, the depiction of religious antagonism felt forced and opaque. By Ms. Labaki’s reasoning, it seems that all Lebanese men have switches between doltish idleness and fighting, which are simultaneously flipped by any news of nearby violence. Restraint seems to be the property only of women or a bearded village priest / imam. Now, it may be that religious passions funnel groupthink tendencies and enable bad man-behavior, especially in a region with a history of conflict. It may be as Ms. Labaki portrays it – but if so, the pettiness and unexplained rapidity of such conflict does not make for a very interesting story.

How the tension flares up to start with also remains ambiguous, but I think Ms. Labaki keeps it so to make a point. The top of the local church’s crucifix, for example, snaps off. Who, why and how is never clearly explained – as is the case when goats later find their way into the village mosque. The local priest and imam both urge calmness and point to reasons like a gust of wind, or the piety of goats. Everybody seems to nod in agreement, and yet the situation escalates.  The incidental causes are anonymous and ultimately unimportant; the consequences however are not. 

Ms. Labaki’s movie is very much a collective story, foregrounding the town as a whole rather than focusing on any lead characters. The goofball mayor and his prickly wife; the self-reliant widow (Amale, played by Ms. Labaki) and her cute kid; the chatterbox women who run the village and the layabout men who think they run things; Ms. Labaki frames them all together in a rustic tableau. The result can be quaintly humorous, as when the village convenes on special occasions to watch lurid soap operas. It can be disturbing, as when Ms. Labaki tucks away black and white photos of machine gun-wielding fathers posing with their children. And it can be moving. Where Do We Go Now? will likely take you on an express ride to Tear-jerk Station during the scenes when the villagers gradually discover that a “sick” boy is in fact the victim of crossfire gunshots.

A byproduct of Ms. Labaki’s focus on the panoply of characters across the village is that some characters do not get as much attention as we might like. Amale in particular remains somewhat of a glyph, albeit a beautiful glyph capable of expressing raw grief. There are some romantic plot lines that meander and vaguely dissipate. There are the Russian belly dancers, who haltingly develop personalities beyond blonde bimbos but mostly exist as distractions for the audience as well as the bedazzled villagers. It seems that Ms. Labaki was not afraid to include more in the story, even if it meant finishing less.

By the end, Where Do We Go Now? reaches closure in an amalgam of zaniness, grief, and high emotion – essentially par for the course with respect to the rest of the movie. The resolution defies easy categorization, less of a social critique that comes from the left or right and more perhaps up or down. You may be left wondering what the point of Ms. Labaki’s rollercoaster ride was, but based on the interrogatory title, I don’t think she had a precise place in mind.

"Where Do We Go Now?" is on sale September 11, 2012 and is rated PG13. Comedy, Drama. Directed by Nadine Labaki. Written by Thomas Bidegain and Nadine Labaki. Starring Claude Baz Moussawbaa, Nadine Labaki, Yvonne Maalouf.

Eric Wang • Staff Writer

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