Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Nadine Labaki
Stars: Nadine Labaki, Yvonne Maalouf, Claude Baz Moussawbaa, Layla Hakin, Julien Farhat, Kevin Abboud.
A favourite on the festival circuit, Where Do We Go Now? is Lebanese actress/writer and director Nadine Labaki’s follow up to 2007’s wonderfully charming Caramel, which was set in a beauty parlour in Beirut and explored a range of feminist issues.
Her sophomore film is a bittersweet mix of comedy and drama set in a small isolated Lebanese village. The inhabitants are a mix of Christians and Muslims who normally coexist in harmony. However, occasionally sectarian violence and hatred rears its head. But when tensions from the outside world threaten to penetrate the village, the differences between the two religions become exaggerated and lead to heated clashes. The local priest (Samir Awad) and imam (Ziad Abou Absi) seem powerless to change the men’s temperament.
The women in the village have grown tired of burying their menfolk and decide to take drastic action to try and ease the tensions before tragedy strikes. “Do you think we’re only here to mourn you?” one of the women says heatedly. Labaki herself plays the fiery Amale, the local café owner who organises the women. They disconnect the village’s only television set to prevent news of unrest reaching the village, but this only provides a temporary respite. They spike food with hashish and even stage a fake miracle. They also invite a troupe of travelling Ukrainian strippers into the village, and while the menfolk are distracted they set out to destroy their cache of weapons.
This is an ambitious film as Labaki explores the senseless causes of the volatile tensions of the region. Where Do We Go Now? has its heart in the right place and explores some serious subject matter, but Labaki injects generous dollops of unexpected humour into the material. Mixing touches of heavy-handed humour, musical numbers and melodrama, she seems to have misjudged the tone of the material. When tragedy strikes late in the film it seems unnecessarily jarring. Ultimately the film falls short of its lofty aims, as Labaki’s direction is uneven and there are some flat spots in the film.
There are too many characters and subplots running throughout the film, including Amale’s flirtatious relationship with a hunky Muslim handyman (Julien Farhat), that it tends to lack strong focus.
The ensemble cast comprises a mix of professional and non-professional actors, and their performances lend an authenticity to the material. Yvonne Maalouf is a standout as the mayor’s wife, and Claude Baz Moussawbaa is heartbreaking as Takla, a bereaved mother who conceals the death of her son to prevent further violence.
French cinematographer Christophe Offenstein (Little White Lies, etc) superbly brings the harsh beauty of the setting to life, and the film certainly has a glossy look.