The Lebanese comedy-drama-musical-tragedy “Where Do We Go Now?” has many of the charms and much of the unevenness that made some foreign indie films of the 1990s an interesting gamble. You bought a ticket and you never knew exactly what you’d be getting. “Where” was made just last year, but it feels like a throwback, in (mainly) pleasant ways.
A female-power political fable that mixes hints of “Lysistrata” with a touch of the joyful matriarchal whirl (and tonal fluctuations) of Pedro Almodóvar movies, it’s set in a very isolated Lebanese village. How isolated? To access the road to larger towns, residents have to scramble across the spine of a broken bridge. The only way to get a TV signal is to drag the set to the top of the highest hill. The entire village — all couple of dozen residents — trudge up that hill together to watch special events, such as the New Year’s Eve countdown that kicks off the 21st century.
At the movie’s start, the townsfolk are quite pleased with themselves. Rightly so. Divided equally between Christians and Muslims, they all get along. Half go to the mosque, the other half to the church a stone’s toss away.
Actually, not getting regular television or radio reception is a good thing. The villagers don’t hear news about bloody religious strife happening elsewhere in their country. If, by accident, a broadcast begins to make its way to the men’s ears, the women erupt in faux catfights with one another, their shouts and insults drowning out the volume.
That’s the central premise of “Where Do We Go Now?” The women of this tiny town, regardless of their religious affiliation, do whatever it takes to keep their men from finding some offhand reason to start killing members of “the other side.” Already the bleak, dusty cemetery — divided, naturally, between Christian and Muslim — is full of young men who have fallen at each others’ hands.
They include the husband of the widow Amal, who, at an emotionally pivotal moment, speaks for the sisterhood when she shouts at the town’s men, “You think we’re here just to mourn you? To wear black forever?”
That impassioned moment comes from the striking actress Nadine Labaki, who also happens to be the movie’s director. You can’t begrudge her for giving herself a prime role, because she’s actually very fine. You could begrudge her, a little, for her throw-it-against-a-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks approach to the material. Ah, well, it works more often than it doesn’t.
The women’s episodic strategies for keeping things tranquil include faking a miracle via a statue of the Virgin Mary, getting the men high with hashish-laced pastries, and hiring five blond Russian dancers to pretend that their bus has broken down on the village outskirts, in the hopes that the foreigners’, um, assets will distract the menfolk for a day or two.
Amid all the silliness, true tragedy finally comes home for Takla (Claude Baz Moussawbaa), the steely shopkeeper who goes to the greatest extremes to maintain peace in the village. The actress is powerful, conveying the grief that counterbalances the movie’s silliest moments. (Those include a couple of musical numbers, which are frankly examples of lily-gilding.)
“Where Do We Go Now?” is not exactly a great movie. It’s too shaggy for that. But it’s a good one — heartfelt, amusing and able to inspire an unexpected lump in your throat. Which says a lot. These days, most movies can’t sustain a single mood, much less juggle a handful.
“Where Do We Go Now?” Starring Claude Baz Moussawbaa, Nadine Labaki, Yvonne Maalouf. Directed by Nadine Labaki. In Arabic, Russian and English with subtitles. 100 minutes. Rated PG-13. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.