In a remote Lebanese village (hard to believe that such out-of-the-way places actually exist), Christians and Muslims live together, side by side, working and entertaining themselves as a community that is as close as family. Boys being boys joke and cross lines that are familiar to both sides, the men drink and eye women — although there is a sense of respect and honor truly from another time. The priest and the imam, like characters in a bad joke, stand shoulder-to-shoulder leading their flocks with an unstated understanding that they strive in the service of the same higher power.
And the women, well, it is the women who rule the roost. They are seen first in Where Do We Go Now? marching to the cemetery to lay flowers and clear away the dust and dirt from the headstones and iconic markers of fathers and husbands, brothers and sons. The women, Christian and Muslim, dance and sway as one body and although they are all clothed in black, there is little sadness or mourning in their movements. This is vibrant life, driven by a strong singular heartbeat.
On the flipside, the boys and men wander across the land, up to the highest points to acquire radio signals, but it is in the airways that news travels, news that will shatter the bonds between the two sides, Christian and Muslim, and require a supreme effort to overcome. To add insult to injury, stray bullets from warring combatants steal the life of one of the village boys and the fear of retaliation causes a mother to lie to protect the fragile fraying peace.
Both in front and behind the camera, Nadine Labaki provides the steady metronome that keeps the film in check.
As the director and co-writer (with collaborator Thomas Bidegain), Labaki strikes an uneasy balance between the eternal conflict that fuels the drama and the humor and warmth that exists among the villagers. In lesser hands, the pendulum swings would feel unnatural and unruly, too broad by more than half, but Labaki mixes musical elements and even a hint of magic realism to create the sense of reason succumbing to the messy rhythms of a shared communal life.
And, of course, there is Labaki’s lovely and charming screen presence. She exudes a primal sensuality that is also quiet and refined. The camera and the eyes of men and women alike valiantly fight the urge to linger on her, but this is not simply a point of vanity. Labaki, first and foremost, is the Earth Mother in the flesh, but she is not alone; all of the women here, old and young alike, carry this trait. It is the spark of life that animates them and that ultimately tames the community, although not without a healthy dose of feminine wile and guile.
It takes so little to distract us from the truth that has always been right before us. We, as humans, struggle in the face of inevitable death, but sometimes we lack the courage to embrace the real challenge, to accept the deep diversity of ideas and philosophies in our neighbors and families.
Where Do We Go Now? dares to step up to mirror and stare long and hard into the reflection. The examination of the question leaves it hanging, asked but still unanswered, in the air. Yet, what makes the film so intriguing is that by setting it in a small village, the intimacy of the community approximates the internal struggle of an individual. The fewer voices, the two sides reduce the conflict down to one similar to that might take place in our own hearts and minds.
All of which leads me to consider a rather sexist notion. Is it possible that this type of film could only come from the perspective of a female writer and director who would not be swayed by macho chest-beating or broad silly hijinks? The mind of the male writer-director would want to resolve things, choose one side or the other, and would likely have skewed the presentation in order to make the point even more clear to viewers.
But Labaki shows that such happy endings are the stuff of fairy tales and we know that those things don’t ever really end like we hope. The ever-after teems with new beginnings and alternatives to ponder.
Where do we go now? Forward, always forward. (PG-13) A-