Nadine Labaki’s inventive satire of Middle East politics that won Toronto's audience awards makes bold comic statements but collapses when tragedy erupts
Oscar prognosticators were flummoxed when “Where Do We Go Now?” won the audience award at last year’s Toronto Film Festival — previous winners like “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The King’s Speech” had turned the prize into an Academy Awards bellwether. But this Arabic-language film (with smatterings of Russian and English) didn’t exactly fit the mass-market profile of its predecessors.
Mainstream audiences heading out to see “Where Do We Go Now?” in its regular release may find themselves similarly confounded, but for entirely different reasons.
Director and co-writer Nadine Labaki has set out to make an audacious satire about conflicts between Muslims and Christians, but when the film goes from musical numbers and farcical situations to gut-wrenching tragedy, the massive and clumsy shifts in tone sink the whole enterprise.
In an unnamed village, Christians and Muslims coexist in an uneasy peace. A recent war has left the town surrounded by minefields and with an inadequate bridge, so they’re pretty much sealed off from the outside world, apart from the teens who sneak out at night to get supplies from nearby cities.
The town’s women of both religious stripes conspire together to keep the males on both sides from attacking each other — with the assistance of the imam and the priest — and the ever-escalating scale of their efforts provide the film with its biggest laughs.
Early on, everyone gathers to watch the town’s one TV, but when a news report talks about nearby skirmishes between Christians and Muslims, the women all start bickering to drown out the audio.
As tempers and tensions escalate, these peacekeeping moms, sick of seeing the local graveyard grow more crowded with their sons and husbands, will fake a religious visitation, shanghai a local troupe of Ukrainian strippers, and even dose the male populace with hashish-laced baked goods.
So far, so good — and at its best, “Where Do We Go Now?” is part of a proud tradition of anti-war satires dating all the way back to Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata.” But veering from wackiness to horror and then back again is the kind of balancing act that would challenge even the most talented filmmakers, and Labaki, for all her good intentions and daring ideas, just can’t swing the shift.
That’s a pity, because the film shows a lot of daring, from tackling an exceedingly prickly subject to finding humor in life-and-death situations. The cast is a treat to watch, and even with dozens of speaking parts, almost everyone involved manages to etch a unique and relatable character among an ensemble that’s practically Robert Altman–sized.
In an era when bold choices so rarely play a role in mainstream cinema, it’s sad not to be able to praise “Where Do We Go Now?” for its willingess to go so far out on a limb. Unfortunately, the intentions wind up being far more laudable than the results.