The images that open Where Do We Go Now? are familiar from countless solemn Middle Eastern-set dramas: bombed-out concrete ruins, arid landscapes, a group of mourning women, all set to the strains of a soaring, elegiac Arabic song. But the steps of those mourning women as they trudge, weeping together under the blazing sun, start to sync up with each other and with the score; soon, their march takes on a distinct beat and their lament becomes a full-fledged dance number.
Nadine Labaki maintains that shifting, unpredictable approach throughout her second directorial effort, a refreshingly offbeat take on the subject matter even if it's not entirely successful. Labaki, whose previous film was the charming salon-set comedy Caramel, has crafted a frothy fable on a bleak subject. The film is set in an unnamed country (assumed to be Labaki's native Lebanon), in a tiny village all but isolated from the outside world by a barrier of land mines and a single dilapidated bridge. The village consists of two communities, Christian and Muslim, living in close proximity with an uneasy peace, constantly upset by the slightest misunderstanding.
The men are trapped in an unending cycle of violence, so the women take it upon themselves to manipulate their sons and husbands into coexistence. A television, lugged into the only spot with any reception, proves a nightly distraction until a newscast brings unsettling stories of religious clashes on a wider scale, necessitating sabotage. As tensions mount, the ladies engineer a reverse Lysistrata scheme, importing a busload of Ukrainian strippers to counteract spiritual enmity with more earthly distractions.
Labaki never settles on a single direction for the tale, however, and the tone remains as restive and unsure as life in the village. Labaki's own character, a Christian café owner, seems destined for a Romeo-and-Juliet liaison with the Muslim handyman renovating the place. That plot provides the excuse for a pair of musical numbers, but ultimately dissipates, like most of the other story threads picked up along the way.