Film Review: Where Do We Go Now?

Lebanese director Nadine Labaki's strikingly original second feature presents a clever solution to ending sectarian violence.

When Nadine Labaki’s Caramel was released in 2007, the film was one of the few Lebanese exports not centered on war. It is a topic difficult to ignore in Lebanon; for nearly half of the past 37 years, and all of Labaki’s childhood, the country was engaged in civil war or wars with Israel. Now, a year after the assassination of its Sunni president, Lebanon is again poised for sectarian violence. In Where Do We Go Now?, Labaki’s second narrative feature, the writer-director gently enters the fray, but not by tracing the complex divisions among Lebanon’s Muslim majority. Instead, she portrays a conflict unique to Lebanon, the only Arab country in which 40 percent of the population is Christian.

Labaki’s movies unfold, physically and psychologically, in a distinctly feminine space. In Caramel, which was set in a beauty salon, female solidarity embraced the challenges of aging, insecurity and discrimination. In Where Do We Go Now?, Labaki imagines a similar solution to civil strife. If her movie does not conform to an established cinematic genre, it is because she draws inspiration as much from Eastern storytelling and fables as she does from classical Western tragedy. The film is set in an isolated and unnamed village damaged by war; the bridge connecting it to the main road is down, and its fields are dotted with land mines. In town, a church stands alongside a mosque, and Christians and Muslims gather at Amale’s café, also the center of the town’s feminine circle, yet it is an uneasy peace that prevails, as the filmmaker illustrates in the opening sequence.

Where Do We Go Now? begins with a poetic prologue, as a group of women, dressed in black, parade up a hill and toward the camera. They hold photographs of men, and move in step to the percussive march that punctuates their progress. From a Western perspective, the cortège, arriving on the heels of the opening narration, resemble the introductory sections of “prologue” and “parode” in Greek tragedy. A narrator introduces the story, after which the chorus enters in an expressive dance set to a similar march rhythm. In classical tragedy, the chorus primarily expresses the feelings of the people, although it also comments on events, and sometimes engages in a dialogue with the play’s protagonists. It speaks as one voice, and represents the unified force of public opinion.

Labaki’s use of these classical dramatic devices prefigures all of the roles the village women will play in the film. The scene also recounts their history and that of the village. When the music ends, the women part in a cemetery to tend to the graves of their male relatives, which are divided into Christian and Muslim plots. This ominous opening is also an illustration of a profound and universal truth of war, even in contemporary life, that for the most part, men die and women grieve. Labaki is resolute in her premise for the film that men perish because war is the male solution or, more correctly, the patriarchal one, for resolving differences, and if a nation is to survive, it falls to women to overturn the foundation of this destructive pattern. The writer-director’s resulting proposition makes Where Do We Go Now? an engaging and thoughtful movie.

As she did in Caramel, Labaki works with a remarkably good ensemble cast, composed mostly of amateurs. She plays Amale, whose café is under renovation, although construction never halts the daily gathering of Muslim and Christian women. Seated at a communal table, they drink tea, sew and sometimes dredge up past differences. They also observe the glances exchanged by the handyman and Amale. Not of the same faith, the two nevertheless entertain romantic fantasies, one of which leads to an imagined dance right out of a Hollywood musical. Coming so soon after the opening sequence in the cemetery, the interlude signals both the melding of genres that will distinguish the remainder of the movie, as well as the dreams of a very different world that propel Labaki’s screenplay.

At a town meeting, held to celebrate the new communal TV with satellite service, sex and politics suddenly burst from the small screen and upset the village’s fragile equanimity. The men’s petty rivalries assume portentous dimensions, and the women, whose traditions limit their intervention in the provincial society, use surprisingly provocative methods to thwart them. One is to invite a group of pole dancers to town in order to distract the men while they search for hidden weapons. The sequence is hilarious, yet alarming in its realistic depiction of the ways in which small-town conflicts grow to become internecine warfare.

Labaki’s conflation of drama and comedy in Where Do We Go Now? is sometimes unsuccessful; there are scenes, as there were in Caramel, that go on far too long, the direction blunting the sequence’s initial effectiveness. The droll scene in which the mayor’s wife claims to hear the voice of the Virgin is one instance, and another is when Amale expels the men from the café for fighting. The latter is a significant sequence because it eloquently expresses the source of the women’s continuing grief, but Labaki does not cut away quickly enough and it degrades into a rant. Counterbalancing these flaws are incredibly moving and perfectly directed sequences of the terrible accident that befalls the boys who take village goods to market, and the ones in which the women are gathered around the table, where both the direction and Labaki’s intent are reminiscent of Jean Renoir.

While the plot of Where Do We Go Now? springs from a gender divide, Labaki carefully accentuates the village’s long history of strife and Lebanese society’s ingrained patterns of violence, so that blame does not fall on the men alone. She dedicates her movie to “our mothers,” yet rather than a feminist, she is a humanist. Where Do We Go Now?, whose title is inspired by the village’s final conundrum, can be perceived as an anti-war film, although that label oversimplifies the writer-director’s intent. Labaki is calling for a sea change, an overhaul of Lebanese identity. In the end, when the female characters finally discard much of what defines them, essentially severing family ties and generations of memory, along with their grief, they commit a revolutionary act. Only upon contemplation does this denouement, and Labaki’s originality, become apparent, but then that is in keeping with the nature of fables.