Where Do We Go Now? (Et maintenant on va où? / Hala’a Lawayn) by the Lebanese film director Nadine Labaki, shown in Un Certain Regard, is comparable to a typical Lebanese meal. It’s made up of tiny little gourmets and dozens of salads embedded in a delicious mix of spices and aromas, enjoyable in a way and indigestible in another.
The movie focuses on an extremely serious issue: the conflict between Christians and Muslims in the Arab world. But it’s treated in a very easy-going way. In a village lost in the barren mountains that surround the mines and the fighting, Christians and Muslim men live in harmony with their women, desperate to avoid further bloodshed. Nevertheless, violent provocations multiply, including the invasion of animals into the mosque, a broken cross and the blood of chickens on the font of the church. The village is on the verge of explosion. Amal (a Christian coffee shop owner played by Labaki herself), Simone and all the other women of the village compete to distract their brothers, sons and spouses. This gives rise to scenes with a delicious absurdity, musical interludes, poignant moments.
With beautful imagery filmed in three different locations to compose this marvelously-imagined village, the Lebanese film director reminds us of the old beauty of a country that has lived in the middle of different civilizations throughout the centuries. The old rocks, the natural landscape, a mix of architectural styles and the poor conditions of its habitants: all give the village a mystical dimension. The humor seems to be the motivating factor of Labaki’s approach. In a near-absence of a main plot to push the story forward, these accumulations of detail and incident drive the characters.
From a non-linear love story between Amal the Christian and Ahmed who paints the wall of her cafe, to a series of jokes related to first television post arrival in the village, Nadine Labaki plays on the full range of emotions to promote peace and show that it is too easy to blame God or Allah for the excessive testosterone of these gentlemen. Even a troupe of Ukrainian girls who are touring a neighboring village have been brought to the village to please and ease. The absurdity arrives at its highest point when Labaki (the director and the film character) decides to deflect from the uprising conflicts between the two faiths by inviting the woman of the village to make hundreds of baked products containing hashish.
Despite all these details, the film has a lot of flaws but Labaki still demands the viewer’s attention. The high spirits of the movie and the large amount of positive energy seems to diminish in a coup de theatre twist when the son of a Christian woman dies suddenly while passing a sectarian conflict scene outside the village. The mother hides her pain from all others to avoid an explosion of the situation. But no secret remains a secret in a village. Before any misunderstanding and bloodshed starts, all the woman of the village decide to exchange their religious symbols and clothes with the other faiths. In one of the most courageous scenes in Arab cinema, veiled woman put on crosses instead while Christian woman wear Islamic head scarves. Only through this does the plot find its purpose and make a great resolution between the two faiths.
With all these good intentions, should logic matter? The light hearted style is the key of this film despite all its cinematographic quaities. “How much cinema is there in this film?” was the big question I asked myself after seeing it. If a film touches your heart and doesn’t touch your mind, who can benefit from this? The delicate issue it tackles, or the art of cinema?
© FIPRESCI 2011