Where Do We Go Now? (M). Director: Nadine Labaki. Starring Claude Baz Moussawbaa, Leyla Hakim and Nadine Labaki. 110 minutes
A funeral procession of Muslim and Christian woman along a wide, unpaved road, their feet falling in time with the stirring score. Gradually they begin to employ subtle choreographed movements and gestures, as, stone-faced, they rhythmically slap photographs of (presumably dead) men against their hearts.
It is one of several endearing — almost Bollywood-like — musical sequences that punctuate key moments in the otherwise dramatic Lebanese film Where Do We Go Now? The sequences leaven the at times earnest film but also reflect the role and attitude of the female citizens of the remote Lebanese village where the story is set.
The women here are responsible for maintaining unity among the mixed religious populace, even as inter-religious conflicts rage beyond the village boundaries. It's a role they embrace with determined optimism. But the 'unity' they maintain is tenuous and to some extent a fantasy. The destination of the women on the dirt road is a segregated cemetery where numerous village husbands and sons lie buried, youthful victims of past conflicts.
At the beginning of the film, peace is in place. But it isn't to last. Television comes to the village courtesy of a rudimentary satellite rig and an ancient TV set, which the mayor describes quaintly as a step into the 21st century. With television comes news of conflicts that seem bound to inflame dormant tensions among the hot-headed men.
The brutishness and herd mentality of the men — seemingly blind to the futility and counter-productivity of further violent in-fighting — is frequently contrasted with the level-headedness and conscientiousness of the women.
When the mosque is vandalised — part of an escalating chain of slight and counter-slight between the Muslim and Christian men — the women are shown dutifully cleaning and restoring this sacred space, while the men, elsewhere, snipe and bicker about the best means of taking revenge.
When a Christian man takes out his anger at his Muslim fellows by literally kicking the legs out from under a crippled child, two women, a Christian and a Muslim, rush to help the child back to his feet.
Ultimately full-blown violence does threaten, whereupon the women concoct increasingly extreme measures to keep the men subdued, and bloodshed at bay. The film's uneven tone (ranging from the deadly earnest to the slapstick) is remedied by its inventiveness; the plot twists sometimes shocking, sometimes humorous, always surprising.
In the end it's clear that for peace to be more than a delusion, division needs to be neutralised at its source, and god conceived as a matron of togetherness, rather than a mannish mascot for mutual massacre.
Tim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.