Film Review – Where Do We Go Now?
When it comes to religious tensions, there are two ways to approach the topic on film—either by showing the ways tensions tear society apart, or by using humor to show the ridiculousness of the situation. Both tactics have merits, and have worked in films from Monty Python’s Life of Brian to Gandhi. In Where Do We Go Now?, director and lead actress Nadine Labaki goes a more difficult route and tries to do both, with good if not great results.
In a small Lebanese village, the Christians and the Muslims are living in peace. The mayor is working hard to set up a place for the village to watch TV and fix a bridge that was destroyed during one of the wars, making people dependent on two local boys on a scooter to go sell and buy goods for the town. The local restaurant is run by Amale (Nadine Labaki). Everyone comes there to eat, gossip, or play games—and watch Amale, a Christian, and Muslim painter and handyman Rabih (Julian Farhat) make eyes at each other.
Things are peaceful until word breaks that violence between Christians and Muslims has broken out in the country. Despite the fact that this has no bearing on anything that is happening in the isolated village, tensions start to mount between the Christians and Muslims. Things get worse after some pranks are played that could have been accidents or children goofing around just as much as they could be have been of malicious intent. The women of both faiths are terrified and ashamed of how the men are acting, and are determined to stop the escalation, including by trying to fake religious signs and even bringing in strippers to distract the men. These are great showcases of not just the idiotic actions of the men and them being easily manipulated, but of the film’s humor.
Later, seeing both the priest and the imam chastise their respective communities for overacting is quite biting and witty. It makes clear that the tensions are not from the teachers of either religion, but rather from the men feeling angry and them creating an excuse for the anger. As we watch the women debate among themselves, we understand the quirks they each have and their places in the town. A few random singing moments also keep a lightness to what is going on. While funny, this both helps and hurts how things progress. When the plans the women implement are going on, it keeps events at more comic level; yet, when things do get worse and the tone of the film shifts, it can be jarring. This back-and-forth keeps up and can be disorienting at times, and makes the story’s message muddled, since we are not certain how to relate.
The subplot with Amale and Rabih also suffers as the film goes on. It seems to mean more at the start of the film, but all but disappears by the end. We are given some great moments between them, even while other matters are brought to the forefront. By the end, though, there isn’t a sense of closure; it seemed off-putting to leave that story after having it build up for most of the film. That is also indicative of how little we learn about the people themselves. Mainly we see just the women group, Christian men group, and Muslim men group, and nothing is done to make us see beyond that. This is fine when it comes to getting the message of the film across, which in the groups they do quite well, but if the viewer is looking for characters to get invested in, they will have a harder time.
The ending of the film does make for a very strong push for what the women are willing to do to keep the community and people they love safe. We see the depth of stupidity of the men wanting to fight. One moment the Christian men and Muslim men can sit together and party, watch TV, and stare at dancers, then the next want to get out their guns and kill each other. Seeing this almost schizophrenic attitude in action shows how real this anger can be, when it is so hard to believe. Not only do we see this in the actions of the men, but also in the pain that their actions cause, which is clear on each of the women’s faces at all times.
Religion and the issues it brings out among people are impossible to define or make clear. When approaching the topic, the necessity to focus on a single message is usually the best way to get any point across. While structurally there are some issues in Where Do We Go Now?, Nadine Labaki is on the right track with her message, and presents many moments that shine on what anger and ignorance of religion can do to a community—a brave feat in and of itself.
Final Grade: B+