Lebanese director Labaki had a background in commercials and music videos before moving into features in 2007 with Caramel, which premiered at Cannes in the Directors' Fortnight. Her new film, Where Do We Go Now? , is set in an isolated Christian-Muslim village in Lebanon, but the country is never named, suggesting that the scenario could apply to any number of places in the Middle East or beyond.
It opens with a funeral procession that morphs into a subdued formation dance number, as black-clad women of varying ages, clutching photographs of their lost husbands and sons, bow their heads and beat their breasts in sorrow. Christians and Muslims have lived side by side all their lives in the barren, sun-scorched village, but the forced confinement of a community encircled by landmines makes friction unavoidable.
Those differences tend to surface in heavy-handed arguments played for laughs, sometimes with the priest and imam serving as ineffectual peacekeepers. Even death is initially given a comic spin via a goat that stepped on a mine, with a shepherd mourning his beloved animal's loss as it turns on the spit-roast. But attempts to maintain unity and peaceful co-existence are constantly challenged. Incendiary provocations such as livestock being let loose in the mosque or holy water fonts being filled with chicken's blood demand retaliation.
Village women from both sides of the religious divide come up with a series of nutty solutions to stop the fighting. The mayor's wife (Yvonne Maalouf) fakes a miraculous communication from the Virgin Mary to explain away an offending incident; a band of Ukrainian showgirls is recruited to keep the men distracted; the one barely functioning television is sabotaged to avoid news reports inflaming tensions.
The biggest threat to the village's fragile equilibrium comes when a local lad (Kevin Abboud) is killed by crossfire during a regular motorbike run to the nearest town for provisions. His mother (Claude Baz Moussawbaa) hides her grief and pretends the boy is bedridden with mumps to avoid reprisals. When that doesn't work, the women cook up a feast laced with hash and sedatives, knocking out the men long enough for them to implement a plan.
A star-crossed lover strand involving Christian Amale (Labaki) and Muslim Rabih (Julien Farhat) runs out of steam somewhere along the way. The director's own screen character tends to be the one island of relative calm and poise in every scene, also getting the most glamorous makeup and flattering outfits.
Written by Labaki with Jihad Hojeily and Rodney Al Haddad, in collaboration with Thomas Bidegain (who scripted Jacques Audiard's A Prophet), the film takes an unorthodoxly buoyant approach to solemn subject matter. This mostly works, but Labaki doesn't have the lightest touch with the comedy. The characterizations tend to be drawn large, and too many scenes escalate into all the women squawking and flapping about in exaggerated states of agitation. That makes it harder to invest in the story's moments of genuine tragedy.
Still, the crisp visuals and extensive use of Khaled Mouzanar's original music and songs give the film a vibrant energy, as does its warm sense of a community not defined by religion or politics. The title question, Where do we go now? arises in the final scene in a way that is both amusing and poignant, underlining the serious wish for peace behind this quirky fantasy.