Where Do We Go Now?
(Sony Pictures Classics – April 12)
Directed by Nadine Labaki; Written by Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojeily, Rodney Al Haddad, Thomas Bidegain
Starring Nadine Labaki, Leyla Fouad, Claude Msawbaa, Antoinette El-Noufaily
The first time we heard about Ms. Labaki's follow-up to the delightful "Caramel" was as last year's Toronto International Film Festival came to a close and it was announced as the winner of that year's Audience Award. Labaki's home country of Lebanon had already put her film up as their selection for the Foreign Language Film Oscar category, and Sony Pictures Classics quickly jumped on as distributor in hopes it would get nominated. (It didn't even make the recently-announced shortlist.)
It opens with a rather powerful statement about the war in Lebanon over a shot of a graveyard in the desert--split into Christian and Muslim sections, divided by a road running down the middle. We then witness a beautiful, mournful dance by the women of the village where the story is set, something that would have felt at home in Wim Wenders' film "Pina," something that sets a somber and poignant tone that is nothing like the rest of the film.
Unlike the secluded environment of "Caramel," this one has a slightly larger scale, taking place in all parts of a small mountain-side village far enough away from the rest of civilization due to the difficult narrow passage required to get there that they've created their own microcosm. After a long and laborious process to hook up an antenna, the entire village sits down to watch television only to learn that the ceasefire between the Christians and Muslims in Beirut is in danger of ending. The women of the town have already lost so many loved ones (as we learned from that opening) and realizing their peaceful community could be rocked by the hot-tempered men always willing to reignite the conflict, they band together to do something as tensions begin arise out of some not-so-innocent vandalism. This leads to the women's decision to bring into the village five stranded Ukrainian strippers to keep the men distracted from their arguments. What ensues instead is stilted xenophobic humor about foreigners, while the strippers are made to seem like dumb eye candy there just to cater to the horny nature of the local men.
Essentially, this is a film trying to make a statement in the midst of being one of those whimsical community-based comedies we've seen come out of England --"The Full Monty," "Waking Ned" and "Calendar Girls" being three of the better examples. Anyone even remotely educated will probably already be on board the "war and fighting are bad" message, so it's never clear why we need this story to drive that point home.
It's obvious Labaki's own dealings with the conflict in her country inspired the desire to do something a bit lighter to help bring her people together, but this benevolent idea is diluted with comedy bits that aren't funny and constantly take away from the serious nature of the topic. As is far too often the case with female-centric films by woman filmmakers, Ms. Labaki goes way overboard in making it seem like all men are dumb and boorish and uncivilized, and it's up to the intelligence and calm resolve of the women to save the day. Oversimplifying the issue in such an obvious way makes Labaki's film seems dated and trite. There are also way too many characters, some which stick out more than others, though good luck remembering which ones are Christian and which ones are Muslim.
We don't want to make assumptions but seeing so many names in the writing credits makes us feel the filmmaker may have had too many cooks throwing in ideas, which may explain why the tone of the film is all over the place. The results are disappointing as Labaki tries to tackle a serious subject with a whimsy that never fully works, leading to what is essentially a punchline derived from the film's title.
Sure, Western audiences might accept this light entertainment more readily than they might a serious film like the Israeli "Waltz with Bashir" or "Lebanon," but it feels like a wasted effort that such a strong filmmaker would needlessly water down a serious topic for easier consumption like this.