In Lebanon, Women Fight To Keep A Fragile Peace

May 10, 2012

Women's hard-won pragmatism contends with men's impulsive belligerence in Where Do We Go Now?, the second feature directed by Lebanese actress Nadine Labaki. It's the sort of well-meaning fable that's ultimately more admirable than persuasive.

Filmed in three small Lebanese villages, the movie never locates itself in a particular country. But, as in last year's similarly cautious Incendies, the place must be Lebanon; there are few places in the Middle East where Christians and Muslims mingle the way they do in this story.

Near the movie's opening, black-clad women march to the local cemetery, chanting, slapping their chests and swaying together, a striking moment that plays like something from an avant-garde production of an ancient Greek tragedy. The mourners are unified in grief until they reach their destination. Then they separate by religion, just the way the burial ground is divided.

The graves are full of young men, the sons and husbands of such women as Amale (played by the director), a Christian widow who runs the local cafe. People of both sects meet at her place, and Amale is trading glances with Rabih (Julian Farhat), a Muslim who's taking his time painting the interior. In a fantasy sequence, their mutual attraction becomes a song-and-dance routine that's much less somber than the earlier one.

It seems that the remote mountain village was at war with itself not that long ago, but now it's quiet. Amale and her friends aim to keep it that way, by hiding from the men any information about flaring hostilities elsewhere. Radio and TV reports are unwelcome; newspapers with upsetting reports are burned in the cafe's oven. Soon enough, though, the word is out, and tensions escalate. Both the church and the mosque, which border each other on the town square, are vandalized.

A bridge to the village was destroyed some time in the past and the town is surrounded by land mines, so the locals don't usually travel. Provisions are brought by two young men who travel by motor scooter. This link to the outside brings both comedy and tragedy.

After the couriers return with a poster for some touring Ukrainian showgirls, the town's women pool their money to bring the troupe to town. Although one of the blonde dancers ultimately plays a role in the women's plan, the Ukrainians' arrival doesn't really pay off, in part because the movie fails to suggest a reason why outsiders would involve themselves in a longstanding sectarian feud. Female solidarity, apparently, tops all other motivations.

When a villager is accidentally killed, the women expect the incident to spark a bloodbath, so they throw a party to pacify the menfolk long enough to disarm them. The sudden segue from poignant death to boisterous revelry — another musical number — is typical of the movie, which shifts tone often and awkwardly. Perhaps Labaki was too eager to showcase the score, which was written by her husband, Khaled Mouzanar.

Where Do We Go Now? has been compared to Athenian satirist Aristophanes' Lysistrata, in which women end war by withholding sex. But the movie's script — written by Labaki with four collaborators — is not in that classic's league. The director's previous film, Caramel, was an ensemble piece set mostly in a Beirut hair salon; it could bounce from subplot to subplot without losing its way. This more earnest scenario requires greater finesse, which the movie doesn't supply. All it offers is a picturesque location, likable characters and the best of intentions.

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