Nadine Labaki's second cinematic venture, Where Do We Go Now?, is a surprising independent film filled with laughter despite the darkness that lingers in the background. After it premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival in the amorphous Un Certain Regard category last May, it opened nationally this summer. Entirely in Arabic with subtitles, the film casts non-professional actors as did Labaki's first film, "Cacharel." Yet their performances are stellar at every turn, as is the production.
The film tells the story of a village in Lebanon where half the inhabitants are Christian and half are Muslim. The women get along while the men grab at every opportunity to start a fight. Tensions arise as muffled news of riots and bloodshed in surrounding areas is heard on the television. The conflict is understood to be happening in Syria or Israel, two countries surrounding Lebanon.
Home to the Maronite Church, an Eastern Catholic Church in full communion with Rome since the 4th Century, Lebanon is split by both faiths and haunted by its Civil War of 1975-1990. Yet beyond the unsavory details of politics, the film acts as an enchanting parable, assuaging all likelihood of conflict through the grace of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Educated at Saint Joseph University, a Catholic college in Beirut, Nadine Labaki appears to be drawing on her own religious background.
Humor is ever present in this comedy of manners, and it is best embodied by the female characters' conniving yet endearing ways. They decide to manipulate their husbands for their own good after they realize shaming them with words for their frequent outbursts will not be sufficient. In one scene, they traipse through the darkness together to bury their husbands’ guns far from the village—afraid of encountering wolves (or their spouses) on the way. Back in their village, they gather in the kitchen and make cakes by mixing paste with sleep-inducing drugs to placate their husbands. They dance and sing in the kitchen while reveling in their trickery.
Victimhood is never evident in the female characters. The women of the village play a critical role in their marriages and local politics, albeit in an unofficial, covert manner. They do not reflect the caricature of Middle Eastern femininity often portrayed on screen. They are not hiding behind the veil or doing their husbands’ bidding for fear of retaliation. They are full-fledged, empowered human beings, living in communion with each other and their neighbors.
On a number of occasions, they pray to a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is through her grace that they make the impossible happen—turn their village into a haven of peace amid the surrounding chaos. Despite minor incidents, as when goats are found inside the mosque prompting a Muslim men to break a Christian statue, the women keep tensions at bay.
On a lighter note, another group of women join the village: professional belly dancers asked to perform and distract the men. Decidedly more Western-looking, they speak English and are significantly thinner than the village dwellers. Though they may look like clueless tourists, they eventually join the village women in their benevolent battle.
The portrait of two men of the church—the local priest and imam—is also poignant. Together, they call followers of their faiths to 'compulsory' conclaves of forgiveness and compassion. One night the two patriarchs organize an evening in front of a television set—a symbol of modernity and another chance for the village to come together. The scene is a reminder of the poverty of Lebanon, an emerging economy struggling to succeed in face of combat and destruction.
The film offers an unsatisfying picture of the persecution of Christians across the Middle East. There is no mention of the forced diaspora of Christians out of Lebanon, or the religious persecution pervasive across the Middle East in wake of the Arab Spring. The film is, after all, a light comedy meant to amuse the viewer rather than expose harsh realities. Yet this naivete can be disappointing and, at times, it sanitizes the harsh reality facing local Christians.
The film’s title, "Where Do We Go Now?", conveys an eerie sense of placelessness that the village exemplifies. It is unnamed and nondescript, yet beautiful and enticing at the same time. The camera zooms in and out of the lives led by the villagers as a hand would flick through a photo album. The pace is at once lively and fast-paced, yet equally reflective and placid. It is meant as a feminine fairy tale, though it it much more than a feminist answer to ongoing sectarian tensions. This makes for a pleasant surprise.