In the classic Greek play Lysistrata, the women of Greece, tired of losing their men in battle, decide to withhold sex from their partners until the Peloponnesian War ends. The increasingly desperate female protagonists of Where Do We Go Now?, Lebanon’s top-grossing Arabic-language film and its official 2012 Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film, would probably admire the intention of that ploy, but disapprove of its bluntness. Their attempts to wangle the men of their village away from clashes over religion are often subtler and sneakier, though no less intense. The no-sex option is never on the table, but it’s just about the only idea they don’t consider in trying to keep the peace in their small town. In spite of their efforts, though, the same conflicts keep reasserting themselves. For the men, it’s a war of sectarian pride. For the women, it’s a war of creativity against entrenched habits and knee-jerk aggression.
Director Nadine Labaki, following up her poignant but more conventional 2007 drama Caramel (another Lebanese Best Foreign Language Film contender), heads up an ensemble of colorful characters as a Christian whose café seems to be the only non-denominational gathering place in her tiny countryside village. Her hometown, surrounded by land mines and connected to the world only via a crumbling stone bridge, is so isolated that all trade with the outside world is handled by two intrepid teenagers with a motor scooter. When the local youngsters rig up a hilltop antenna capable of bringing in a few grainy stations on the town’s one working TV, it’s such a momentous event that the whole village gathers on the hill to watch a few shows together, and the mayor makes a speech about their first collective steps into the 21st century. But when the news comes on, with its inevitable grim stories of sectarian clashes, the women spring into action in a instantaneous, practiced way, picking loud, meaningless fights with each other to drown out the newscasters. It’s clear they’ve been engaging in different forms of this practice for a long time, shouting whatever lies are necessary to drown out the contentious voices of the outside world.
Their reaction to external influences is a form of provincialism, but it’s a well-intentioned one, and an increasingly necessary protection in a divided world. Before long, the village’s Christian and Muslim men are clashing over offenses both real and imagined, with the first squabbles rapidly escalating to dramatic back-room plotting and a war of attrition. The women are forced to step up their peace campaign to match. Much of Where Do We Go Now? is taken up with the struggle to keep the men’s minds off conflict. Sometimes it’s via direct, dramatic confrontation—when Labaki follows one flare-up with a furious tirade delivered to her café customers, there’s a vicious personal edge to her question “Is this what it means to be men?” as if the question is coming from the director as much as from her character. But most of the gambits are surreptitious, imaginative, and openly funny, whether the women are hiring Ukrainian strippers to invade the town, or faking a religious miracle. To Labaki’s credit, she manages to take the film between tonal extremes credibly and without dulling the impact of either the humor or the horror. It’s rare for a film to cover a child’s death and a mother’s subsequent agony, then later successfully wring giggles out of an over-the-top group song about the peace-keeping uses of hashish surreptitiously introduced into food.
The songs, composed by Labaki’s husband Khaled Mouzanar, are one of Where Do We Go’s stranger conceits. The film opens with a funeral march that becomes a beautiful, swoony dance, as the village’s black-clad women express their emotions with their bodies instead of their voices. A later romantic interlude where Labaki and Muslim contractor Julian Farhat fantasize about each other takes on the outsized emotions of a Bollywood number. In these moments, the film overtly declares the fairy-tale nature that otherwise manifests more indirectly, though the shape of the story. In spite of its serious themes and its roots in grim conflict, Where Do We Go isn’t meant to be taken at face value. It’s unabashedly a fantasy: It takes place in a generic place inspired by Lebanon, but with location and era identifiers deliberately omitted. There are no class clashes, even though there are clearly class differences. The religious strife is broad and undefined, based more on a simple, broad us-vs.-them dynamic than on any disagreement about a given belief or custom. There’s little sense of the town’s history, in terms of specific grudges or personal conflicts.
It’s also significant that while the village’s key women have detailed personalities, the men are generally more generic, distinguished largely by their social or story roles. None of them are drawn in close detail; it’s more like the women are trying to hold back a rolling wave of national intent than like they’re fighting a specific battle against individuals. Even the village’s priest and imam are fundamentally indistinguishable, good-natured men united in their desire for concord, to the degree that they’re both willing to compromise their pride and even their faith if a lie here or there will keep their followers calm. Religion isn’t an evil in Where Do We Go, and religious men aren’t inherently blinkered. Every aspect of the film is designed to isolate the religious war from other aspects of life, and to generalize it into iconic status without miring it in real issues that might divide audiences.
But what the film lacks in specificity and interest in taking sides, it makes up for in style, authentic emotion, and terrific performances, particularly from Claude Baz Moussawbaa as a mother willing to make tremendous personal sacrifices for the women’s cause, and Yvonne Maalouf as the mayor’s wife, who carries the dignity of her wealth and station, but is willing to let herself be ridiculous if necessary. Between the two of them, they accomplish a great deal of the difficulty of getting the film smoothly between its dramatic and comedic poles. For a movie about religious war, Where Do We Go is surprisingly funny; at times, it veers almost into caper territory, as its protagonists work their way through scheme after outsized scheme.
And that makes the film a much riskier proposition than a simple drama about women fighting to keep their families from fighting. Satire is a risky proposition; satire of serious subjects is even more so. In turning such a vast conflict into a comedic romp, Where Do We Go Now? sometimes feels like it’s cheating or cheapening its subject matter. Its scattered musical interludes and intermittent playfulness threaten to throw its gravity off balance, and its insistence on symbolically splitting up humanity by gender—turning all women into peacekeepers, even though it doesn’t correspondingly turn all men into warmakers—may be off-putting to some viewers in its simplicity and generalization. But Labaki’s premise goes beyond simple sexual conflict. In her allegorical world, the men stand in for all people with power, and the women for all people who can only use craft and creativity to counteract the implacability of that power. Her clever, sweet film is just another creative solution to a complicated problem.