LONDON – The Lebanese feminist anti-sectarian musical comedy has hitherto been a surprisingly under-explored niche in the rich spectrum of world cinema, so it”s to the considerable credit of writer-director-actress Nadine Labaki that she spotted this yawning gap and filled it so studiously. In the wake of her chaotic if pure-hearted sophomore feature “Where Do We Go Now?,” however, it”s probably safe to consider the door on this particular sub-genre swiftly closed. The trouble with Lebanese feminist anti-sectarian musical comedies, as it turns out, is a certain inconsistency of tone, and a hard-working Labaki hasn”t quite found a way around it.
Or perhaps she has. Following a mildly received springtime debut at Cannes, “Where Do We Go Now?” has emerged as the uninvited but ultimately ingratiating party guest of the autumn festival circuit – catching everyone off-guard by taking the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival, recently reserved for big-league awards bait of “King”s Speech” proportions, before being adopted by Sony Pictures Classics with a steely eye to the foreign-language Oscar. (Lebanon announced it as their official submission to the Academy shortly after its Toronto triumph.) It”s an unexpected turnaround under any circumstances, made only more surprising by a viewing of the film itself.
Equal parts patly righteous we-are-the-world cinema and eccentric stylistic gallimaufry, Labaki”s latest panders to western festival audiences with liberal issues so simplified as to be rendered incontestable. (Religious intolerance is bad! And so is violence against children!) So far, so money, but it”s harder to gauge what the viewers for whom these messages come as sobering epiphanies make of the film”s broad, lengthy comic interludes involving Ukrainian burlesque dancers and hash cookies (the latter accompanied by a rousing theme song containing the lyric: “This hashish comes straight from my heart/Yellow or brown, he”ll still be stoned”). Clearly, it”s working for some; for this writer, however, Labaki”s shrill, scattershot comic approach to high-stakes subject matter comes as a disappointment after the warm assurance of her popular 2007 debut, “Caramel.”
Like that film, “Where Do We Go Now?” employs a close-knit group of working-class women to carry its socio-political concerns, with Labaki herself, as feisty young widow and café owner Amale, its kohl-eyed center. (Not content with playing the only glamorous character in the mostly dowdy ensemble, Labaki also modestly burdens herself with the script”s lone romantic storyline. Female solidarity rules.) This time, however, the director has ambitiously enlarged the circle of characters and removed any specific social context: both location and period go unnamed in an allegorical fable revolving around bitterly warring Christian and Muslim menfolk in a remote Middle Eastern village, and the increasingly loopy measures the women take to pacify them.
These contrived schemes – including the aforementioned drugged sweetmeats and the hiring of some busty Eastern European eye candy as decoys – provide the chief comic set pieces, directed with more enthusiasm than flair by Labaki. Several of them amuse, but sit oddly with the film”s sharp swerves in and out of tragic territory: one minute we”re chuckling at goats being let loose in a chapel, the next a young boy on crutches is getting beaten up by grown men. Between these poles, any emotional throughline is increasingly tricky to determine.
A handful of song-and-dance numbers – staged with gusto, though too infrequent to grant the film fully-fledged musical status – are a more welcome tonal aberration, if only because they sometimes tap into a bridging sense of melancholy absurdism: the eerily beautiful funeral-march dance that opens proceedings, with its hive of black-clad, multi-denominational mourners moving in graceful harmony before departing to their separate cemeteries, is a symbolic and aesthetic peak the rest of the film never matches. It’s an inadvertently telling opening gambit: the women of “Where Do We Go Now?” are an effective force as a unit, but too ill-drawn and indistinctly performed as individuals (though more generously served than their boorishly one-note male counterparts) to illuminate any more personal themes within Labaki”s narrative. As the titular question is pointedly voiced aloud at the film”s close, the characters aren”t only ones stymied by indecision.