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What to do when war breaks out? Bring on the strippers

A scene from "Where Do We Go Now?"


3 out of 4 stars


Set in a secluded Lebanese village, Where Do We Go Now? is a tragic-comic fable that speaks to how we live now, and have lived for far too long. Essentially, it's an allegory addressing the age-old habit of mankind – put the strong emphasis on "man" – to shed real blood over artificial divisions. Here, the schism is religion, but race or ethnicity or nationalism would serve just as well. This being a fable, the venerable problem does have a solution. Just replace patriarchy with matriarchy, demote the men and promote the women – specifically, mothers. And if all mothers were like the director Nadine Labaki, no doubt that proposal would work splendidly. Too bad some are like Margaret Thatcher.

Certainly, the opening sequence is a potent reminder of the problem's depth: A procession of women, all clad and shod in black, march rhythmically to the local cemetery, bearing flowers in their hands and heaviness in their hearts. But then the film (winner of the People's Choice Award at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival) ushers in the first of its many tonal shifts. Back in the village, where the church sits beside the mosque and the priest keeps close company with the imam, folks live in peace. They speak the same language, share the same jokes, watch the same soap operas on the lone communal TV – the setting is timeless and the harmony palpable.

There, Amale (Labaki herself) is an attractive single mom with a young son and an ardent crush on Rabih, the plasterer who's helping to renovate her café. She's Christian, he's Muslim, no matter. Indeed, in a charming musical interlude right out of a Jacques Demy film, the two hum and then sing and finally dance their way across the religious divide. Yes, everyone is united – until they aren't.

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The TV soaps get interrupted by news reports of sectarian violence in the vicinity. Instantly, male hackles are raised but, just as quickly, the women spring into diversionary action. Led by Amale and the mayor's plump wife, they talk loudly over the television's blare, and later that night sabotage the set to impose their own news blackout.

Still, the word leaks out, prompting miscreants to do their worst – one despoils the holy water in the church, another the ancient rugs in the mosque. With the violent temperature rising, the women ratchet up their diversions, importing a troupe of Ukrainian strippers in order to put all that male testosterone to better use. So a tone that began as elegiac, then moved to lyricism, now shifts again into broad comedy. To their credit, Labaki and her mainly non-professional cast handle the transitions with aplomb. We are moved, we are charmed, we do laugh.

It's the final shift into tragedy that defeats them and mars the movie. When a boy strays from the village into a deadly crossfire, the escalation is immediate on both sides – the men to take up arms against each other, the women to push just as aggressively for disarmament. That's precisely when the fable should grow most poignant and powerful; instead, it gets scattered and shapeless. Rushing in to reinvigorate it, Labaki has her character deliver an impassioned speech to the hot-headed males, a heartfelt plea that doubles as a blatant accusation: "Do you think we exist simply to mourn you?"

That moment is effective, but the momentum has been lost, and an allegory that looked rich comes to seem merely precious, just a well-meaning but vague crusade "to find a better way." So the interrogative title is left to hover over the ending, as it does over all those tension-filled places near and far. Speaking as a foolish man, I had high hopes for these wise women – given the historic alternative, I still do.

Where Do We Go Now?

  • Directed by Nadine Labaki
  • Written by Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojeily, Rodney Al Haddad
  • Starring Nadine Labaki
  • Classification: 14A
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