Thursday, May 24, 2012

Where do we go now? (orig. Et maintenant on va où?) [2011]

MPAA (PG-13)  Roger Ebert (2 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing -
Roger Ebert's review -

Where do we go now? (orig. Et maintenant on va où?) directed and cowritten by Nadine Labaki  along with  Roddney Al Haddid, Jihad Hojeili and Sam Mounier in collaboration with Thomas Bidegain, is a truly "funerary" black comedy set in a small, isolated mixed Christian-Muslim village somewhere in the mountains of Lebanon in the present or recent past.

The village is tiny.  The Maronite Christian Church stands right next to the Muslim mosque in the center.  The Priest and the Imam get along just fine.  All the villagers know each other and have lived with each other all their lives as their forebears have for generations.

Yet all are well aware of the religious strife around them.  They've even been been periodically effected by it.  The film opens with the village's women, all dressed in black, the Muslim women with head-scarves, the Christian women without, going to the graves of their loved ones in the cemetery outside of the town.  The cemetery -- one side Muslim, the other side Christian -- has been there for ages.  So the women are not just visiting loved ones who've recently died, but also ancestors who've died long ago.  Yet presumably at least some of the deceased had died/killed recently and presumably some had died/killed as a result of the religious strife that seems everywhere.

However, for the time being anyway, except for the rickety bridge (half fallen-down or blown away) leading to the village, the physical scars of the religious conflict have been minimal and the village appears to remain in the state of a rickety/fragile peace.  And the women (both Christian and Muslim) are determined and increasingly desperate to keep it that way.  To the film's credit the village's Priest, the Imam (and even the Virgin Mary) are _repeatedly_ shown to be on the women's sides even as the women's actions do become increasingly desperate, and it is clear that it is _the women_ and not the village's religious figures (both "of this earth" and "beyond" who are responding often creatively if increasingly desperately to  the crisis that threatens to overwhelm their village as well.

In the preceding paragraph I've used the phrase "increasingly desperate" three times to describe the women's actions during the course of the story.  What do I mean?   (Needless to say, I'm giving a SPOILER ALERT for those who would read further, but it's probably worth it to read on).

Initially, the women try to keep information about the conflict from reaching their men.  Remember, the town is poor and isolated.  Near the beginning of the film, a couple of the teenagers from the town with the town's Christian mayor's blessing find _a single point_ (way on top of the hill on whose side the town is built) where they could get decent television reception.  The mayor then donates his wife's old television to the town so that the whole town could watch TV together in a makeshift park that they set-up on top of that hill.  With the fan-fare that only a small-town mayor could offer, he announces to the townspeople gathered on top of the hill that their fair town was going to  "finally enter into the 20th century let alone prepare for the new one." (the scene of the townspeople gathering to watch TV together recalls scenes from the Italian movie Nuovo Cinema Paradiso [1988]).

Yet, modernity quickly ceases to be all that it's cracked-up to be.  Much of the television programming appears to be quasi-pornographic offending the sensibilities of both the Christian and Muslim women sitting there with their husbands and families watching the town's television set.  Final straw, however, comes when the News comes on  The lead story is, is of course, about the religious violence occurring in the country below.  At this point, both the Christian and Muslim women spontaneously start to talk loudly and interrupt the concentration of the men to the point that the mayor eventually eventually shuts-off the television in disgust.  A few days later, a small group of women, among them the mayor's wife (remember this was her own television set) go up to the park where the TV had been setup and SMASH IT along with the antenna.

However at least vague news of the conflict occurring in the country below has reached the village.  What now, the women set about to censor "the Press."  Since the bridge to the town had fallen apart (or been blown up) previously, there are only two teenage boys (one Christian one Muslim) who ride a rickety bicycle with a couple basket down from the village each day to the next to pick-up supplies to bring them back home to town.  Generally, the men would give them money to buy newspapers.  Well, now that there's vague news of a conflict going on below, the boys' mothers burn the papers before the boys would deliver them to the men so that the men don't see it.

As tensions even in the absence of hard news mounts, the women, again Christian and Muslim FAKE a Marian apparition in the Christian Church.  The statue of Mary as the Immaculate Conception inside the Christian Church, but now with more or less obviously painted blood streaking from her eyes, starts talking to the mayor's wife (of course only the mayor's wife can hear her ;-).  And Mary seems to know EVERYTHING that's going on in the village.   She gives mayor's wife (kneeling in front of the statue in ecstasy, with all the town's people both Christian and Muslim gathered behind her) _very specific_ instructions to tell the men all the _very specific things_ that they could be doing around their houses to help their wives and families (with both the Christian and Muslim women nodding up and down and elbowing their husbands) instead of thinking about guns and war.  The men smelling something's not entirely right here, ask the Priest about this.  He shrugs and smiles and indicates to them that it'd probably be a good idea to listen to their wives/Mary.  The Imam also appears to be very much in agreement as well ...

Now the boys riding their village bike "down to the outside world," of course bring "other news" back into the village -- among them a flier regarding some in some town below.   Initially scandalized by this (and that their sons would even know of a place like this) the women of the village (again both Christian and Muslim) get together and HIRE five women (Ukrainian) from the club below to come to the village to "distract their men" while they figured out what to do.

When one of the two boys (named Nassim) going "down to the outside world" for supplies gets shot and killed by a stray bullet from the fighting below, the women come to realize that they are not going to be able to hold things together for much longer.  So they organize a big party for the whole village.  They already have the Ukrainian girls that they hired to come up to distract the men.  To make sure, _they actually load all the pastries that they bake for the celebration _with Hashish_.  Then while the men are distracted by the hired "dancing girls" and "high as a kite" on the hashish in the pastries, the women go back to their homes, barns, nooks and cranies, and take _all the men's weapons_ and _bury them_ in an unmarked grave far outside the village.

FINALLY, when the men wake-up from their drug-induced haze they discover to their shock that their women -- all of them -- have switched religions.  The Christian women have become Muslims (head scarves and all), the Muslim women have taken off their head scarves and have decorated their houses with pictures of the Virgin Mary.  AND EACH OF THE WOMEN TELLS HER HUSBAND / SONS: "IF YOU'RE GOING TO HATE THEM, YOU'RE GOING TO HAVE TO HATE ME NOW, BECAUSE NOW I'M ONE OF THEM AS WELL."

The film ends with the village's men carrying the casket of the teen, Nassim, who had been killed by that stray bullet below, with the Christian women dressed now as Muslims and the Muslim women dressed as Christians.   The men stop at the point in which they have to decide what part of the cemetery to bury the child, and ask ... (the title of the film) ...


I found this to be a great, at times funny, at times almost unbearably sad film.  And yes, as someone in my (religious) "line of work" I did find the movie disturbing.  After all, the women in this film were progressively committing graver and graver sins.  Yet, honestly GIVEN THE SITUATION who could not understand?  And the Priest, the Imam, and EVEN THE VIRGIN MARY (in the film) "get" what the women were doing.  What a remarkable story!

Finally, many foreign film lovers will appreciate the various homages made in this film:  As I already  mentioned above, the village gathering around the "village TV" recalled similar scenes found in Nuovo Cinema Paradiso [1988].  Then the relationship between the Priest and the Imam in this film evokes memories of the relationship between Don Camillo and the [Italian] Communist mayor in the Don Camillo [IMDb] film series (though arguably the Priest and the Imam in this film got along much better than Don Camillo and the Italian Communist mayor in the other ;-).  Finally, the opening cemetery scene as well as the women's increasing desperation in this film recall the Spanish film Volver [2006] which had starred Penelope Cruz (and for which she had been nominated for an Academy Award).  In the case of  Where do we go now?  arguably the whole town's women were as traumatized as Penelope Cruz' character was in Volver

All in all, I was very impressed with this film and wish the film's makers as well as their country honestly all the best.  And yes, I understood the horror/tragedy described.  Stories like this do, like the Virgin Mary in this film, make me weep.

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