- - Thursday, May 17, 2012

The bittersweet comedy “Where Do We Go Now?” imagines life in an tiny Lebanese village in which an uneasy peace between Christians and Muslims is maintained by a vigilant group of women of both faiths.

The village, which goes unnamed throughout the film, is almost comically isolated, separated by a gorge from the nearest highway and ringed by land mines left from earlier conflicts.

The idea of rift and separation establishes the central conflict of the movie and plays out visually throughout in ways large and small. There is the town cemetery, where the village women go to tend the graves of their sons and husbands. There also is the divide in the church confessional — the only place where the priest and the imam can meet in secret.

Much of the action takes place in a cafe owned by Amal (Leyla Hakim), a Christian widow. Her place is being remodeled endlessly by Rabih (Julian Farhat). Their awkward flirtation is the talk of the village, and it’s a sign of the times that the possibility of a mixed marriage is a topic for idle gossip.

The movie opens as the village comes together to watch TV for the first time. Two enterprising teenage boys, Roukoz (Ali Haidar) and Nassim (Kevin Abboud) scour the town for a spot where their makeshift satellite antenna can pick up a signal. This search for a sign from above bodes ill for the town — bringing news of sectarian conflict in nearby villages.

The women go to great lengths to keep the men ignorant of these events, staging petty conflicts, hiding weapons and even importing a traveling troupe of Eastern European dancers to distract and occupy the men. This silly turn is checked with an unexpected tragedy that threatens to explode the carefully maintained peace.

There’s a strong feminist motif here, but it’s the feminism of the Greek drama “Lysistrata.” Indeed, “Where Do We Go Now?” can more properly be termed matriarchal — exploring what happens in a warlike society in which male dominance is foreclosed by an absence of men. This idea of women as peacemakers may seem incongruous, but “Where Do We Go Now?” reportedly is the highest-grossing Arabic-language film in Lebanon’s history.

Blending magical realism, melodrama and a dose of Bollywood, “Where Do We Go Now?” may seem to be unsure of its footing, shifting from the tragic to the absurd. But for those who are willing to abandon themselves to a truly foreign dramaturgy, “Where Do We Go Now?” offers a moving and occasionally exhilarating cinematic experience.

★★★

TITLE: “Where Do We Go Now?”(In Arabic with English subtitles)

CREDITS: Directed by Nadine Labaki. Written by Thomas Bidegain

RATING: PG-13

RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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