Art is a constant struggle of deciding how far to stray from accepted norms in presentation. Go too far and those consuming the art get lost in trying to understand the work. Don’t go far enough and the art comes off as inconsistent or lacking innovation. Where Do We Go Now? is a mostly straightforward and competent film all around, but certain creative choices distract from the overall message of the film, marring the presentation with unevenness.
In an unnamed village in the Middle East the small population breaks down into two groups: Christians and Muslims. By and large, the townsfolk live in peace – they work together, play together, dine together. The entire town even comes together to watch TV in the courtyard. Unfortunately, this village has a history of violence that the women of the town won’t forget. So when news of religious warfare starts to pour out of the television, it’s up to the women to keep their men distracted and prevent needless harm from breaking out in their peaceful village. Regrettably, the men are so sensitive that any perceived slight is taken as an ultimate offense, forcing the women to make amazing personal sacrifices to keep the peace, but will it be enough?
Overall, Where Do We Go Now? offers a serious plot about real-world issues, but presents the story in a largely lighthearted manner. The women are fun and jovial, and audiences will laugh at their clumsy attempts at sabotage and espionage. They often crack jokes and tease each other into going along with the next outrageous idea to keep their men distracted, and the behavior exhibits a kind of comfortable universality that will endear the characters to audiences. The story, however, does become progressively darker as the film goes on, and the comedy moves from the characters to the absurdity of their situation as the women are subjected to more trials than is fair.
The performances never falter throughout the film, which is a credit to writer/director Nadine Labaki. Her unique directing style allowed her to work with this cast of mostly non-professional actors and get realistic dialogue, movement and emotions. Most of the characters aren’t complex, but neither will any of the actors pull audiences out of the experience, either. Labaki turns in the strongest performance as Amale. She has a deep understanding of her character, has good camera sense and knows how to tap into her real-life experiences to enhance her acting. When Amale lectures the men on violence late in the film, it’s obvious that Labaki – if not all Lebanese women – are speaking the powerful words.
One odd aspect of the film is its various musical elements. Labaki’s goal was to present a kind of fairytale parable by omitting exact information about the setting and inserting surreal aspects, like singing and light dance numbers. The film opens with female mourners marching towards a cemetery, and the women surprisingly start moving in time with the soundtrack. Later, another musical scene features Amale singing to herself and running through the woods, with her clothes flowing around her like in a fragrance commercial. These moments add another layer to the film that doesn’t seem necessary, especially since the musical scenes are so sparse. When they appear to punctuate the story, they make the film feel inconsistent rather than innovative.
There are also a few minor plot issues that go unresolved. For instance, a character has a relationship with a love interest, which the film builds up with an out-of-body musical number. Unfortunately, the relationship is never paid off. Also, an elaborate plan is concocted to spy on the men to find out how close they are to all-out war, but this minor plot doesn’t resolve in a completely satisfying manner. Fortunately, while story problems like these do mar the film, they aren’t often or egregious enough to be fatal.
It’s unclear how American audiences are going to react since viewers here are loathe to tolerate differing world views – especially when those views are opposite to their own and have a real ability to constrict them. Nevertheless, the message of Where Do We Go Now? is still something that every viewer, regardless of nationality, can appreciate. Everyone is different to some degree, and the least everyone can strive for is tolerance by another.