Takla (Claude Baz Moussawbaa), Amale (Nadine Labaki),
Yvonne (Yvonne Maalouf), Afaf (Leyla Hakim) and Saydeh (Antoinette Noufaily) stoically brave the oppressive midday heat,
clutching photographic effigies of their beloved menfolk, lost to a
futile, protracted and distant war. Some of the women are veiled, others
bear wooden crosses, but all are clad in black and united by a sense of
shared grief. As they arrive at the cemetery gates, the procession
divides into two congregations; one Muslim, the other Christian. United by a common cause, the women’s unwavering friendship transcends,
against all the odds, the religious fault lines which criss-cross their
society and they hatch some extraordinarily inventive, and oftentimes
comical, plans in order to distract the village’s menfolk and defuse any
sign of inter-religious tension.

Uneven story of comical subterfuge.

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: There can be no discrediting the spark that Nadine Labaki shows with her sophomore effort, Where Do We Go Now? After hitting it big both critically and commercially with Caramel (2007), she has fearlessly seized the ensuing opportunities and aimed very high. Where Do We Go Now? is one of the most interesting exercises in free cinematic expression in quite some time; that it ultimately sinks under its own ambition is disappointing, but it dies trying.

The film then takes a turn for the ridiculous when the women hire a
troupe of skimpily-clad Ukrainian dancers to keep the men from
escalating their tension.

Life in a small village (though no country is named in the film, production took place in Lebanon) is one of tolerant co-existence for the Muslim and Christian townsfolk. As tensions begin to rise in the region, old wounds are opened and soon the divided males start in with the yelling and idle threats. But the women have had enough of the conflict, which has taken fathers, sons and brothers from all of their homes, so they band together to keep the men in the dark about the violent skirmishes that rage nearby.

The film opens with a striking sequence that shows the women marching in unison to the town’s crowded graveyard. They sway in a synchronised outpouring of grief that is beautifully shot. The scene suggests that what follows will be a fiercely original work, perhaps slightly surreal and definitely unlike any meditation on the centuries-old conflict that we have seen to date.

But then in the scenes post-opening credits, Labaki paints a familiar picture of village life; the cafe of the beautiful Amale (the director, providing herself with some very flattering close-ups and costuming) is the central meeting point where the chattering group of ladies devise the plan. It starts simply – they fake a fight between each other to drown out newsflashes on the communal television; the mayor’s wife (a funny Yvonne Maalouf) fakes a connection with the spirit world to relieve the mounting angst.

The film then takes a turn for the ridiculous when the women hire a troupe of skimpily-clad Ukrainian dancers to keep the men from escalating their tension (though it 'gives rise’ to an entirely different type of tension). Seemingly endless scenes of the men ogling the girls become tiresome, the comedic element diluted; later, the girls do their song-and-dance for the menfolk, all of whom are high on hash-bread the ladies have baked. Labaki has a flair for capturing exuberant movement; earlier on she had staged an old-school romantic sing-off between Amale (a Christian) and the hunky Muslim painter Rabih (Julien Farhat), though that subplot goes nowhere.

The director, who worked with four writers in an effort to coalesce the many disparate elements of her vision, then weaves some very dark, tragic humour into the mix when an accidental killing must be covered up by the group lest it spark an all-out war within the village. This melding of profound grief with broad farce is the film’s undoing; there is no reconciling the scene of a young boy’s limp body being lowered into a well with the jaunty tone of the film’s first half.

The funeral scene that ends the film is an oddly pessimistic one; the cycle of violence clearly hasn’t been broken. Audiences had a right to expect a more hopeful outcome, given the feel-good underpinnings of Where Do We Go Now? Despite Labaki’s unique narrative, flair for the visual and clear humanistic intent, her efforts, much like those of her sisters onscreen, feel like they have achieved very little.

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1 hour 40 min
In Cinemas 28 June 2012,