A faintly dance-like procession of Lebanese women clad in traditional clothing moves toward the graveyard where the majority of their husbands and sons, lost in war, are buried. The way they move, in subtle rhythm with one another, points the scene gently in the direction of a musical, and a comedic one at that, until the women arrive at the ramshackle collection of headstones and flower arrangements and begin to weep as they tidy them up. The balance of light and dark, of happy solidarity and isolated work, is the most prominent mark of director and star Nadine Labaki’s singular Where Do We Go Now?, a just-shy-of-brilliant comedy about the seemingly unresolveable religious strife in the Arab world.
In fact, Where Do We Go Now? does occasionally turn itself into an out-and-out musical, in that its characters break into song and choreographed dance whenever that joyous feeling strikes (there is such a thing as young love, even in a rural Lebanese village populated by mourners). At the same time it’s a comedy of Arab manners — Labaki relishes showing us how simple the misunderstandings are between the village’s constantly bickering Muslims and Christians, without sharing this simplicity with the bickerers themselves. At the same time, more seriously, the film is about the religious schism between those same Arabs.
The gaggle of mourners run their village, which is never given a name, from behind the scenes. Their lives are dedicated to pacifying and satiating their few remaining males — husbands, uncles, sons, grandfathers, boyfriends — while pulling off the not unimpressive feat of letting the men think they are the ones actually in charge. It’s the age-old idea that behind every great man — or in this case, rural Lebanese mayor — is a great woman, but without the sinister, Lady MacBeth-ish portents that usually entails. These women want their men just powerful enough to feel manly, but not so competitive that they can’t resist the constant temptation to come to blows. In other words, the women are Lady MacBeths with a high-minded goal: they wouldn’t give a fuck if their husbands never rose one foot higher in the world, so long as they don’t end up dying by the sword.
A bus of misdirected Eastern European prostitutes; a couple of batches of pot cookies; and a few old-fashioned, well-timed, loud arguments are the special weapons the women use to distract their well-intentioned but hopelessly ennui-afflicted male counterparts from enacting a microcosm of the religious war they’ve been lucky enough to survive. These are funny little episodes — the village men drool over the hookers, stumble around in a haze of pot-induced brotherly love, and do their manly job of hushing up the women when they intrude on important business — but they lead to the movie’s flaws. The men are portrayed too broadly, with resolutions to their fights tending to revolve around a speechifying tirade rather than real understanding, which in turn makes the inevitable violence — while in appropriately shocking contrast to the film’s light tone — feel contrived and ultimately deflated. All of which is to say the narrative level of Where Do We Go Now? functions like a stage musical, which is an imprecise but witty method of trying to lay bare the demons of Lebanon.
Perfectly skilled or not, Nadine Labaki is only 38, and this is only her second feature (she’s long been one of the Arab world’s biggest music video directors). In international film, there are precious few female auteurs; Labaki now stands along with Agnes Varda, Catherine Breillat, Claire Denis, Mira Nair, Andrea Arnold, Kelly Reichardt, Kathryn Bigelow and a handful of others (though not too big a hand). Her gender in relation to her role as an artist seems to be pointed out as often as her plots, which is probably the lot of any good female filmmaker, since the movies are and have always been an old boy’s club. It’s almost a shame to bring it up again, except for the related fact that Where Do We Go Now? — genre affectations aside — is a sincere, searching look at the pained role of women in a small but nevertheless male-dominated society.