Where Do We Go Now?

[Christianity Today Online; May 11, 2012]

3 stars

Cast: Nadine Labaki (Amale), Julian Farhat (Rabih), Leyla Hakim (Afaf), Yvonne Malouf (Yvonne), Ali Haidar (Roukoz)

Outside a small, dusty village in Lebanon, a few teens with an old-fashioned boom box are climbing the hills, trying to find a place where they can get good reception; their home town is so isolated that news from the outside world is an occasional thing. Only a narrow, badly-maintained bridge connects them with the surrounding countryside, and it is surrounded by land mines that were planted long ago and never removed. Yet it’s worth it to take that risk sometimes, if they can find a signal.

Suddenly there’s a blast, and the kids immediately fall to the ground. It’s not one of them, though; we don’t see the victim until a old shepherd later comes through the village with his treasure draped over his shoulders. “Is that Brigitte?” asks Afaf, the widow who runs the village shop. Yes, Abu Ali sadly replies, “It’s Brigitte, the one that never knew love.”

At dusk a few hours later the community is gathered on the hilltop, sitting in rows of chairs borrowed from the Catholic church and eagerly waiting to watch some TV. As the rotund mayor welcomes the crowd he addresses Abu Ali in particular. “We say to him: Brigitte did not die in vain. She sacrificed herself for us. Sacrificed her body! Any one of us here could have met the same fate. And remember, only the goat on the right is halal.” Brigitte is turning on a spit, a nice toasty brown, and Abu Ali mutters to himself, tragically, “All I can say is bon appétit.”

That gives you a taste of the wry humor you’ll find in “Where Do We Go From Here,” an ensemble film in which an assortment of odd and interesting (and often very funny) characters, crammed together in an isolated town, try to find a way to get along without killing each other. Those words should be taken with some literalness, for men have killed each other all too often in Lebanon. The women, in particular, know that; the title sequence shows a couple of dozen village women, all dressed in black, going in procession to the cemetery to clean and adorn the gravestones. There are actually two cemeteries, on either side of the dirt road, with crosses on the left and crescents on the right. Many of the graves are topped with framed photographs of young men. The village is a peaceful spot, mostly; residents have a long tradition of getting along despite their different beliefs, and the mosque is separated from the church by only one building. The priest and imam confer together about the community that unites both flocks; it’s not unusual for the priest to open the curtain in the confessional and find the imam there, with some pastoral situation they need to discuss.

The central character in the story is Amale, a young widow who runs the café where the villagers pass the time. time. She’s a Christian (the only church in town is Maronite Catholic), but can’t help glancing at Rabih, the handsome Muslim she’s hired to sand and paint the room. Muslim and Christian women, sitting and gossiping together, banter with each other about which of them—Amale or Rabih—should convert, so the romance can finally get underway.

Then Amale’s jerry-rigged radio announces that an altercation in a nearby town got out of hand, and resulted in a Christian-Muslim clash in which handguns were drawn. The women suddenly go silent, and glance around; fortunately, none of the men heard this. That night when the same news is announced over the TV, the women begin jumping up and starting arguments, to drown it out; later that night they sneak out and try to sabotage the TV. But tensions keep rising in the community; the wooden cross at the church is broken, and the men blame the Muslims; the mosque is invaded by goats, and the men blame the Catholics. The women must resort to ever-more-elaborate stunts to divert the men’s attention.

“It would take a miracle,” one says, and then that sounds like a very good idea. So the mayor’s wife, Yvonne, pretends to have a visionary swoon before the statue of the Virgin Mary, and delivers the word that the Virgin is angry with them all for fighting. But she can’t resist the opportunity to get in her own digs. The Virgin, it turns out, is displeased with one person for throwing blackberries at clean laundry, and another for watering his neighbor’s garden in an unseemly way. “Joseph!” she calls out. “She’s seeing St. Joseph!” the villagers exclaim. “Joseph David!” she says, and a man in the back looks up, startled. “He’s a [deleted],” Yvonne says, and cracks a smile. “The Virgin said that?” exclaims the priest.

As tensions escalate, schemes do too, and eventually the women pool their money and hire some Ukrainian exotic dancers to have their bus “break down” outside the village, and seek local hospitality. “You could fit three of them in a pair of my pants!” says one of the Muslim ladies. We see the long-legged Ukrainians’ feet splashing in a dirt-walled swimming pool, then pan to the village women’s chubby legs which don’t reach the water.

As the women go from one plan to the next there is plenty of great humor, but it is leavened with some genuinely heartbreaking scenes. The incipient romance between Amale and Rabih, all longing glances and restraint, contributes a layer of tension (not without its own humor, as when Amale, carrying a tray of dishes but unable to stop watching Rabih, runs into a doorframe).

What makes this film more successful than most is that the characters—in particular, the mostly-plump, mostly-middleaged, bantering and scheming village women—are original and engaging. It was interesting to learn, from my Lebanese friend Saydeh, that the storyline reflects a cultural expectation that women are the keepers and builders of communities. While there might be differences of taste or opinion among them on little things, they would see the big picture better than men do, and be able to restore peace to a community. “Man gathers and woman builds”—the father brings home money, but the mother builds the family ethically and morally. Quite a shift from the American tradition of seeing men as the visionary leaders and builders, both at home and nationally, and women as focused on small things, hunting and gathering needs and comforts for the home.

The proportion of comedy to tragedy seems just right, delivering a movie that remains thought-provoking for days. The one reservation I would have has to do with the ending. Without giving things away, I think it is one that a non-religious audience would consider very satisfying, but those who are committed to a faith of any sort would not find perplexing and unbelievable. While you won’t have much opportunity to see this film apart from big-city art theaters, look for it on DVD and over streaming services. Brigitte did not die in vain!

Talk About It

1. For those who aren’t convinced of the truth of any one religion, it looks easy for people of faith to get along by putting aside their differing beliefs. Viewed from a perspective of committed faith, however, is it the beliefs that are the problem? Is there any reason differing beliefs would lead neighbors inevitably to conflict? What makes it possible for people of different faiths to live in peace, and what changes in circumstances might provoke conflict? Is it ever necessary to take up arms against those of other faiths?

2.  Though the film is about people who are separated by their faith, the movie almost never draws on elements within those faiths to cause characters to make peace with their opponents. What Scriptures would you have quoted to the Christian characters? Do you know any verses from the Koran to recommend to the Muslim characters?

3. How did you feel about the scene where Hamoudi is talking to Nassim through the door? Did it strike you as funny, or sad? Can a movie scene be both at the same time? Can moments in real life?

The Family Corner

There is a good bit of bad language in the subtitles, which a Lebanese friend tells me translators often render more raw than the original. The violence is not extreme, and the sexy Ukrainians do not disrobe, but there is a longish sequence celebrating hashish.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.