REVIEW: وهلّأ لوين؟ [Where Do We Go Now?] [2011]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 110 minutes | Release Date: September 14th, 2011 (France)
Studio: Pathé / Sony Pictures Classics
Director(s): Nadine Labaki
Writer(s): Rodney Al Haddid, Thomas Bidegain, Jihad Hojeily, Nadine Labaki & Bassam Nessim

“They got me to fake a miracle. I won’t even get into hell now.”

Winner of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award, وهلّأ لوين؟ [Where Do We Go Now?] tells the tale of a small Lebanese town and its unavoidable clash of religions. Friends, neighbors, and romantic interests, the Christian and Muslim inhabitants co-exist peacefully until the outside world infiltrates with news reports of hostility. A news anchor’s account of the fighting sparks a war of words amongst the once serene collection of citizens basking in the sun’s warmth and the entertainment supplied by their only working television meticulously set-up by young Roukoz (Ali Haidar) where reception is best. The enraged men let egos align with religious brethren they’ve never met instead of those they hung out with the night before while the women—mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters—must watch in horror hoping another senseless funeral isn’t their fate.

Told from the women’s perspective, we watch Amal (co-writer and director Nadine Labaki) attempt to steady relations in her café, Takla (Claude Baz Moussawbaa) provide her customers with whatever goods her son Nassim (Kevin Abboud) and friend Roukoz can get in the city, and the mayor’s wife Yvonne (Yvonne Maalouf) does what’s in her power to calm through manipulation. They see everything a few steps ahead of the men falling prey to overactive emotions and before long decide to take matters into their own hands after the community television experiment fails. From here the accidental destruction of a Catholic Church cross spirals into the sabotage of a mosque’s prayer rugs, the tainting of holy water, and eventually physical abuse. Willing to do whatever necessary to mend this wound, Amal and her friends even falsely channel the Virgin Mary to alleviate retribution.

When Muslim handyman Rabih (Julian Farhat)—a man seen pining over Amal’s Christian through stolen glances—turns from innocent bystander to troublemaker in the object of his affection’s store, more drastic measures must be taken as things escalate into the taking up of arms. Hoping to distract from the hostility with a little sexual entertainment by hiring a Ukrainian troupe of exotic dancers the Arab women humorously label anorexic in their jealousy, they also secretly attempt to find each side’s weapons cache. As all hope for reconciliation seems lost with the younger boys dividing themselves up like the local cemetery’s separate burial plots, the women hatch a last-ditch, extreme effort to achieve victory for the community. With help from priest (Samir Awad) and cheikh (Ziad Abou Absi) alike, the town transforms itself overnight in a poignant, radical gesture for peace.

Where Do We Go Now? starts slow as it builds background for the tension at play, but it does steadily pick up through the humorous situations created by these women. With an increase of humor, however, does bring an escalation of drama as Muslim leader Abou Ahmad (Mohammad Aqil) and Takla’s older, hot-headed Christian son Issam (Sasseen Kawzally) begin to treat their clash as though a civil war in the town. Despite each day finding both sides engaged in pleasantries on the street, you still see the continuing separation after Svetlana, Katia, Tatiana, and Olga arrive to give them something else to think about. But besides the fun joke of every man requesting ‘thinning waist lotions’ and ‘thickening hair creams’, the fact that the Muslims start meeting secretly to draw up dangerous plans never drifts far from our consciousness.

This crowd-pleaser includes a bit of Bollywood flavor too with three extended musical pieces. Where the first initially seems like a montage, both Labaki and Farhat are clearly moving their lips to the lyrics. Culminating in an elaborate spectacle of baking treats for the final ploy meant to win over the warring men, the music helps cut the heavy air built when death finds its way in. Despite many scenes of arguments and blind rage played as fodder for comedy, the moment we see the fallen body of an innocent definitely makes us take pause to realize the stakes are real. While pushing the ladies to go for broke, the filmmakers don’t fully give into cliché by making the townspeople rally around the death itself. Our heroines understand such a murder would only incite a larger riot and they act accordingly.

As a result, the film successfully portrays the horrors religious differences have wrought in the Middle East by making the chaos accessible through levity. Maalouf exemplifies this ability to smile through the violence perfectly as the exotic dancers provide serviceable situational comedy. These moments hold our interest and help us to care about the characters, but it’s the little bursts of drama that truly shine in my memory. Watching Labaki and Farhat engage in long-awaited dialogue via a third person and two languages provides a lot of answers as far as their differing worlds and common humanity go just as a scene between Moussawbaa and Kawzally breaks your heart towards the end. Where Do We Go Now? is a letter to temperamental men about the preciousness of their lives. A mother’s will is a strong force to reckon with—not even God or Allah can get in the way.

[1] Left to Right: Nadine Labaki as Amale and Julien Farhat as Rabih. Photo by Rudy Bou Chebel ©, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
[2] Anneta Bousaleh as Svetlana. Photo by Rudy Bou Chebel ©, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
[3] Center: Claude Baz Moussawbaa as Takla. Photo by Rudy Bou Chebel ©, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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