“Where Do We Go Now?” (2011): how wascally women win the war

7 June 2012


There are a lot of things about us women
That sadden me, considering how men
See us as rascals.


As indeed we are!

Those of you familiar with Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata may have forgotten how funny it is, and how wicked. In it, the wise Lysistrata convinces the rest of the women of Greece that they can bring an end to war by refusing to have sex with their husbands until the men, driven crazy by lust, agree to peace — leading to all manner of surprisingly goofy scenes in which desperately erect men desert their ranks in droves and agree to the women’s demands.

Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now? (Et maintenant, on va où?) is an ingenious reinterpretation of this ancient Greek play for our modern era. Set in a tiny Lebanese village evenly split between Christians and Muslims, in which the village women make regular pilgrimages to the cemetery to mourn their dead husbands and sons, Labaki captures all the lightness, sex, and humor of the original, but bolsters it with moments of dead seriousness about women’s grief and modern-day religious conflicts. If you saw Labaki’s earlier romantic comedy Caramel (2007) you know she has a gift for sexy humor. Believe me, you want to see this one.

Between the village’s small size and its isolation from other villages, its villagers have created a precarious peace between villagers — at least for the moment. Christian and Muslim women visit the cemetery together, sharing their grief for men lost in religious warfare. They may visit different churches for religious services, but the priest and the imam sit together in the café owned by the widow Amale (Labaki, whose heavily kohled eyes make her all the more distinctive), as do men of both faiths. But this peace is fragile.

When news seeps about renewed religious violence in a neighboring town, the men start to bicker amongst themselves, and the strict lines between Muslim and Christian are reestablished with mounting aggression. What will be the inevitable result? The women will have to bury more dead loved ones.

The village women share a mission that bridges the religious divide: to distract the men from fighting. Their efforts never quite correspond to those used by Aristophanes’ Greek women, but they reveal the same comic sensibility. When the village gathers in the evening to watch the sole TV that gets reception (a signal achievement of jerry-rigging it to a satellite dish by two village boys), their enjoyment is interrupted by a news broadcast about deaths in religious skirmishes nearby — so the town’s women leap up and invent myriad squabbles with one another and with the townsmen in a gambit to drown out the news and keep their minds off the subject of religious retaliation.

Meanwhile, Mme. Amale’s budding cross-religious romance with Rabih (Julian Farhat), the village’s painter and handyman — a romance that each of them lives out with sultry glances and hypnotic daydreams of singing and dancing together (yes, this film has beautiful and fanciful musical numbers!) — gets interrupted when Rabih, like all the other men, gets drawn into fighting alongside his Muslim fellows. Breaking the film’s generally light tone, Amale screams at him and all the other men to leave her café, reminding them that this behavior will just give her and the other women more bodies to bury and mourn.

(The images I’ve included with this post would seem to indicate that Mme. Amale is the Lysistrata figure, but that’s misleading; she’s really only one of many distinctive women who share responsibility for rascally peace-making. What can I say? When I raided the internet for images, Labaki got top billing.)

Maybe Lysistrata remains so vivid 2500 years after its original performance (it was first performed in 411 BCE) because there’s something about the battle of the sexes that hasn’t changed: when men make stupid, trigger-happy decisions about war, they ignore the burden they place on women. Yet the clever woman can use men’s testosterone to her advantage if she thinks like a chess player. In imagining new moves for her village women, writer-director Labaki encompasses both silliness and grave seriousness — right down to the spectacular end.

When we saw this film in a crowded theater last night, everyone got the jokes Labaki dished out at us: the whole audience laughed at all the right times, and one Arabic speaker even sang along, quietly, to the memorable song about the wonders of hashish. (A song about the wonders of hashish! Now that’s a pacifistic philosophy we can all embrace!) I enjoyed it all the more because of that environment, and found the dead serious moments all the more affecting because they served as such stark reminders of the real costs of war.

I can’t tell you what a great and silly pleasure this film is — perhaps all the more so because unlike so many grim Middle Eastern films about the horrors of war, this one sneaks in its gravity and pacifism via broad humor, vivid characters, and a couple of great tunes. No wonder it has won audience awards as well as last year’s Cannes Film Festivals’ Prize of the Ecumenical Jury: this film is like a glass of cool water on a hot day. This film is sure to appear somewhere on next year’s La Jefita awards for the Best Female-Oriented and/or Directed Films of 2012.

Well, aside from those hot and dreamy sequences with Amale and Rabih, of course. Mmmm.

3 Responses to ““Where Do We Go Now?” (2011): how wascally women win the war”

  1. JE Says:

    Can’t wait to see this. And I’ll add it to my list of movies to recommend to my ancient history students. I love ancient lit adapted and reformulated for the modern world. It’s what Euripides was doing when he wrote about the Trojan War, after all.

    • Didion Says:

      Oh, I can hardly wait to hear what you think of this interpretation. I heard Lysistrata mentioned, so I was prepared for only one outcome — and was so impressed by what I found!

  2. […] Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now, the sneaky, funny, sexy Lebanese film about a tiny remote village split down the middle between Christians and Muslims. A wicked, perfect retelling of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. […]

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