The Lebanese film Where Do We Go Now? features a group of women, half of them Christian, half of them Muslim, who conspire to keep the men of their town from killing each other. Outside this unnamed village, religious strife is escalating, and it threatens to catch hold like an ember from a nearby forest fire—although in this case, the first ember is borne by the advent of television (and news reports). The cross on the church is damaged (accidentally), someone (likely goats) defiles the mosque and soon the men are pushing each other around in the town square and muttering about guns. To distract their men, the women fake a visitation by the Virgin Mary and resort to comic interventions, including hiring a troupe of sexy Ukrainian belly dancers and slipping them their version of Mickey Finns—hash cookies.
If that sounds a bit too cute for you, hold on. Director and co-writer Nadine Labaki has a careful, delicate hand when it comes to balancing the precious and the poignant. The movie has something of the texture of the 2007 Israeli film The Band’s Visit—where an Egyptian marching band stranded in a small town in Israel made friends with their enemies—or one of those British country village films featuring cunning and eccentric characters. Often the village-as-microcosm films become tedious in their efforts to charm. But Labaki is not just trying to please her audience; she has the ambition to provoke and stir emotion. Her model seems more Cinema Paradiso than Waking Ned Devine.
(MORE: Time’s Richard Corliss on Caramel)
She opens with a haunting scene of women in mourning on their way to visit their dead, in a cemetery that is starkly divided between Christian and Muslim graves. A narrator issues an invitation to listen to “a long tale of women in black,” whose lives are steered by their allegiance to “a cross or a crescent.” The women move as a unit, half walking, half dancing, their motions subdued but also sensual. They thump their hearts with their right hands—many clutching photographs of their lost husbands, fathers, sons. It’s breathtaking, sad but beautiful. The music, composed by Labaki’s husband Khaled Mourzanar, is the perfect accompaniment. Its rhythmic beat aches with loss but it is also alluring, catchy even; you feel an urge to be with these women, thumping your heart too.
Resistance to that urge was obviously low at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival, where Where Do We Go Now? won the People’s Choice Award (previous winners include The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire). Labaki’s 2007 film Caramel, another intimate tale of female camaraderie, set in a Beirut hair salon, was warm and sweet, but Where Do We Go Now? is a much stronger, more compelling film. As she did in Caramel, Labaki takes a lead role. She plays Amale, a Christian widow who runs the only restaurant in town and exchanges many longing glances with the town’s painter, a Muslim named Rabih (Julien Farhat). They can only come together in an interlude of musical fantasy—there are a few of these—but the movie is less a musical than simply freewheeling; if Labaki likes it, she includes it.
(MORE: Time’s coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival)
Children of different faiths in the same village can be friends, but becoming more is complicated. The women may bicker amongst themselves but want these divisions to vanish. Sitting around in the café, the coffee klatch discusses the town’s gentle idiot, Sassine. “He doesn’t know if he’s Christian or Muslim and he’s not bothered,” one says. “Exactly, he doesn’t have a care in the world.” The group’s main ringleaders are mischievous Saydeh (Antoinette Noufaily), Afaf (Layla Hakim) and Takla (Claude Baz Moussawbaa). They’re all wonderful, but Baz Moussawbaa, who has never been in a film before, gives the film’s most wrenching performance as Takla, whose two sons, passive Nassim (Kevin Abboud) and the fiery Issam (Sasseen Kawzally) play crucial roles in tensions in the village.
The female empowerment message here is fairly soft. Some might argue with Labaki’s use of fantasy elements, as if they suggest women can only influence their community with the help of magic. I began that argument with myself, then chose to go ahead and embrace it (even the bit where a statue of the Virgin Mary sheds tears of blood). Is it all too good to be true? Could women stop war through the sedation of sex and drugs and a plot to bury every weapon in their community? Labaki has said she knows Where Do We Go Now? is a fantasy. But it’s a good one, and this lovely film seems pertinent far beyond the landscape of the Middle East. As one of the Ukrainian dancers says, when their manager, or possibly pimp, urges them to leave the village as violence escalates, “You think it is better anywhere else?”
PHOTOS: Lebanon in Crisis