Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now? is a moving, charming, at times simplistic allegory on religious strife in her home nation of Lebanon. Set in a small town little changed from biblical times - a sort of Middle Eastern Lake Woebegone - Labaki reduces centuries of gnarled problems into bare essentials, and applies a refreshing feminist twist to the solutions.
With a population split roughly 50/50 between Islamist and Christian, Labaki humorously weaves the village's eccentric fabric of life. A television placed in the public square offers an amusing source of communal entertainment, but also a source of tension when news reports of nearby sectarian violence are broadcast. The town’s other landmark is a dusty and overflowing cemetery; filled with the remains of those killed in Lebanon’s bloody and pointless civil war. From the multitude of gravestones adorned with smiling portraits of the dead, it’s clear the village has lost an entire generation of young men.
When a series of misunderstandings reopens old wounds, the peaceful village threatens to erupt in another religious war. Labaki, who plays widowed cafe owner Amale, concocts an unusual and hilarious strategy to distract the men from their violent impulses. But ancient hatreds can only be held at bay for so long, and soon the region’s ingrained bloodlust will claim another innocent victim.
Labaki walks a fine line in her approach, balancing her desire for sunny entertainment with the need for a frank appraisal of brutality. It’s a path as treacherous as the narrow mountain pass that connects the village with the outside world, and Labaki occasionally stumbles. Her periodic insertion of fanciful song and dance routines presumably serves some symbolic purpose, but in context the effect is jarring and distracting. The storytelling gets a tad sloppy in the final act, with frequent mood shifts working at cross purposes.
But there’s no denying the wisdom of Labaki’s political analysis. In the film’s best scene, she clears a group of brawling men from her cafe with an impassioned plea shared by grieving wives and mothers the world over. Her implication that poorly educated men egged on by breathless TV news reports are responsible for the region’s problems may seem unsophisticated, but her case is compelling.
Nadine Labaki’s previous film as writer/director was the enjoyable 2007 production Caramel, a witty comedy set in a Beirut beauty shop that was rather surprising in its conventionality. Nary a mention is made of the city’s tortured past and the film’s gentle tale of romantic catharsis could have taken place in Tokyo or Cleveland. Here Labaki’s canvas is much larger, confronting Lebanon’s pain while offering a healing prescription from the pharmacy of common sense. Where Do We Go Now? is an uneven step forward for the talented Labaki, but a step forward none the less.