In 2007 Nadine Labaki’s first feature film Caramel became Lebanon’s most internationally acclaimed film yet. Back again with another female-centric tale written, directed and starred in by Labaki, the filmmaker fulfils her promise with this effusive tragicomedy. Set at the turn of the 21st century, Where Do We Go Now? broods over the problems facing modern Lebanon and its heterogeneous population.
In an unnamed rural Lebanese village both Muslims and Christians live side by side, as they have done for centuries. Yet with sectarian violence spreading across the country, the small neighbourly town is threatened by a potential bloodbath as the men become more aware of the religious divide. Having faced innumerable losses in the past at the hands of religious warfare, the women are determined to keep the peace and remind the men of their almost familial closeness.
Only accessible by a small, rocky bridge and surrounded by landmines, the village is ostensibly isolated from the outside world. Their only contact is through trips made by two teenage boys, Nassim and Roukoz, who run errands on their moped. On witnessing and reading of the increasing tension outside the village, the women collectively decide to block any news sources which may rile the men. Naturally, this must be done in secret without the knowledge of the men. What follows is the often comic drama which Labaki excels in; a bittersweet social commentary.
Few films manage to coalesce as many styles and genres as Where Do We Go Now? Not only is it a tragic drama and a social critique, but it is a comedy and a musical. While many films would be swamped by so many expressions, this film easily slips into each, mimicking the ever-changing nature of people themselves. Amale, played by Labaki, is a Christian with a Muslim love interest, Rabih. Their musical love song interludes, though unexpected for a Western audience, are an entertaining extra that draws on the cultural background.
The harmless bickering of the women in the town is a source of amusement that breathes life into the realistic depiction of a community. In search of the men’s buried weapons, the women measure distance by their steps, leaving one of the women to call on her large friend to count the steps more accurately with her big ‘men feet’. Another scene displays an argument over the products channelled in, with one of the Christians asking why her veiled friend was bothered about hair dye. Even in their extreme desperation, there are absurdly funny twists. Manipulating the men’s faith, the women fake a miracle as the mayor’s wife Yvonne pretends to make contact with the Virgin Mary to voice the message of unity. Similarly, the decision to sedate the men with hashish baked goods is whimsical and uplifting.
However, it is the idea of bringing young foreign women into the town to distract the men that is the dominant, long lasting joke of the film. Labaki plays with the light bulb moment of inspiration in a scene in which the women ponder another means of a truce. As the women sit around the cafe table, there is a brief blackout. With the return of electricity, the pinball machine rings out, its flashing lights emanating from the breasts of the illustrated bikini-clad woman. This reminds the women of the Ukrainian strippers touring the area, and the male preoccupation with sex.
When the film breaks into inevitable tragedy with the death of Nassim, the fortitude of the women is tested to a fierce degree. Knowing the death of her son will cause mayhem in the village his mother washes, clothes and hides his body in the well while she can think of solution. Her pretence in the face of other mothers and local children is a harrowing performance as she must set aside her display of motherly grief in order to mother the needs of the town.
The film’s most poignant moments directly question the role of the women in this society. Its outcome defies the suggestion that they are made to grieve the men as the women stage a religious intervention by switching sides from Catholic to Muslim and vice versa. The message is one of unity with the suggestion that by fighting one another they are attacking themselves. By illustrating the comradery between the imam and the priest, the film points out how the issues are more political rather than theological, as is usually the case. The brilliant ensemble cast makes this one of the best films of the year to date. [Watch the trailer]