The only thing men love more than fighting is sex.
That ancient truth, recognized in 411 BC in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (a comedy in which the women of a Greek city withhold sex until their husbands stop making war), gets an updating in Where Do We Go Now? from Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki.
Labaki wastes no time in letting us know that her film, set in an isolated village, should be viewed as a fable.
It begins with the town’s women walking to the local cemetery to clean the graves of their dead menfolk. They’re evenly divided between Christian and Muslim. But they are united by grief.
Slowly their footsteps become synchronized to a percussive beat. The women begin moving their arms and gesturing in unison.
It’s a lot like one of choreographer Pina Bausch’s curious rhythmic marches, and it tells us up front not to expect too much realism over the next 110 minutes.
The little burg – half Christian, half Muslim – has been cut off from the rest of the world for most of a generation. The sole bridge into town was destroyed long ago in sectarian fighting. The only access is a narrow trail surrounded on both sides by steep drop offs.
Since nothing bigger than a motorbike can negotiate the trail, most of the villagers rarely leave.
For years now an uneasy peace has been maintained by the women working in cahoots with the local priest and imam. They burn newspapers lest their husbands, brothers, and sons learn about the religious infighting that continues in Lebanon. When someone rigs an old TV to pick up a faint signal, the ladies sabotage the effort lest the evening news set off a local bloodbath.
All this is presented by writer/director Labaki with a keen sense of the absurd. The men are pretty much idiots. The women run circles around them.
At one point the Christian ladies fake a miracle – a statue of the Virgin Mary that weeps tears of blood – to cow their men into nonviolence. Later the girls throw a big feast in which just about every dish has been heavily laced with hashish and pharmaceuticals. Hey, who’s going to waste a good buzz on fighting?
And when old antagonisms seem ready to erupt anew (there are caches of firearms hidden all over town), the women implement a novel if hair brained scheme. They arrange for a bus carrying touring “showgirls” to “break down” just outside the village. They figure the men will be so eager to please the visitors – five sweet but dumb Ukrainian blondes with suggestive clothing and navel rings – that they’ll forget about religious antagonism.
Where Do We Go Now? is crammed with interesting and diverting characters. Director Labaki (one of the most beautiful women in films) plays the Christian widow who runs the town’s only cafe. She’s got a chaste flirtation going with a Muslim bachelor (Julian Farhat) who’s painting her place.
There are a couple of wheeling-dealing teenage boys (Ali Haidar, Kevin Abboud) who use their moped to haul in supplies from the nearest city. The mayor’s wife (Yvonne Maalouf) proves herself the real power in local politics.
Labaki sets such a charming, goofily funny tone that the film’s rapid late slide into tragedy is jarring, like something out of another movie. It’s one of those cases where a filmmaker has painted herself into a corner with no graceful way out.
Still, for most of its running time, Where Do We Go Now? is a clever updating on the eternal battle of the sexes.
Other films in the series “Middle Eastern Voices”
This film series complements the exhibit Echoes: Islamic Art & Contemporary Artists on display through April 27, 2014, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- November 2: Lemon Tree (2008) Not Rated
- November 9: Incendies (2010) Rated R
- November 16: Persepolis (2007) Rated PG-13
- November 23: The Color of Paradise (1999) Rated PG
- November 30: Where Do We Go Now? (2011) Rated PG-13
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.