Review: Where Do We Go Now?

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Where Do We Go Now?

The long-standing Middle Eastern religious wars are unlikely inspirations for comedy. Bathed in bloodshed and seemingly endless, the strife between religious factions is no laughing matter; it is difficult to make a serious film about the ongoing tragedy, much less a funny one.

So it's to filmmaker Nadine Labaki's great credit that the absurdly comic Where Do We Go Now? (Et maintenant on va où?) works so well. The Lebanese writer/director/actress has delivered a quirky, tragic and bitterly funny movie -- complete with musical numbers -- that finds humor without lessening the impact of unspeakable horror.

Where Do We Go Now? is set in a remote, dusty, crumbling Lebanese village where Christians and Muslims have been battling for what seems like forever; thanks to frequent violence, the town appears to have more dead residents than live ones. In relatively peaceful times, both sides seem to focus on their common interests, such as watching grainy, static-filled TV broadcasts on a village hilltop and hanging out in a café owned by the film's central character, Amale (Labaki). A Christian, Amale has an obvious crush on Rabih (Julian Farhat), a Muslim painter who is renovating the café.

Tensions have been rising lately, with each side blaming the other for acts of vandalism at the village mosque and Christian church. News of armed conflicts elsewhere in Lebanon further inflames the situation, and soon the villagers see their temporary truce evaporating.

Most of the violence involves the macho, posturing village men. The women find themselves acting as peacekeepers, devising clever ways to distract the men from their feuding. The first distraction is hilariously clever: The women hire a troupe of strippers -- all Ukrainian and thus all the more exotic -- to ride into town in a battered bus and, under the ruse of a breakdown, seek lodging and some company until they can get the bus going again. The men quickly forget their differences -- if only momentarily -- and fall all over themselves trying to be hospitable hosts, while some of the more matronly women gripe that their thin, leggy guests are too much of a distraction.

Other ruses follow; I won't elaborate beyond saying that one ploy would have Cheech and Chong's stamp of approval. The comedy, of course, is tempered with horrific violence, tragedy and suffering -- Where Do We Go Now? is, after all, a film about war.

In some respects Where Do We Go Now? is a rather odd movie, combining farcical humor and great sorrow with fantasy sequences and catchy musical numbers. The end result could have been full of jarring transitions and clashing moods, but the elements complement rather than contradict each other. Labaki (who also gave us the superb sex comedy Caramel) is a renowned music video director, and her strong visual style and chorographic experience are evident in Where Do We Go Now?. The fantasy elements (including a romantic, very West Side Story scene with Amale and Rabih) are particularly striking, and the transitions from frivolity to brutality and back are deceptively seamless.

Where Do We Go Now? also is unusual in that it's female-centric. Although strong female characters are increasingly common -- at least in the indie film world -- they're still far too rare, so it's refreshing to see a film (from the Middle East, no less) in which women take charge. (Hollywood, are you paying attention? Never mind; I already know the answer.) Unfortunately, the flip side of having fully realized and powerful female characters is that their male counterparts are little more than props; my strongest criticism of Where Do We Go Now? is that the men have little to do beyond battling each other and serving as bumbling comic fodder. Another complaint is that the film has too many characters, both male and female, making many of them forgettable and interchangeable.

For all her writing and directing talent, Labaki also gives a strong performance as Amale, carrying the film as a no-nonsense woman weary of losing the men to senseless bloodshed. Yvonne Maalouf also is excellent as Yvonne, the hilariously conspiring wife of the mayor, as is Claude Baz Moussawbaa as shopkeeper Takla. Again, the male characters are too many and too underwritten to give the actors much to do, but I did enjoy Khalil Bou Khalil as the comically clueless mayor.

Where Do We Go Now? is a mildly daring and generally successful statement about the senselessness of religious conflict. Visually captivating and often hilarious, it's an appealing film built on a substantial underlying message about tolerance and peaceful coexistence.