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Tragicomic musical asks 'Where Do We Go Now?'

By Roger Moore

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Published: Thursday, July 12 2012 6:11 p.m. MDT

Nadine Labaki as Amale is part of a group of women who work to ease tensions between religious groups.

Rudy Bou Chebel, sony pictures

"WHERE DO WE GO NOW?" — ★★1/2 — A group of Lebanese women try to ease religious tensions between Christians and Muslims in their village.; PG-13 (thematic drug material, some sensuality and violent images); Broadway

"Where Do We Go Now?" is a fitfully amusing, sometimes moving Franco-Lebanese riff on "Lysistrata," the Greek play in which Greek women conspire to stop a war by withholding sex from the Greek men. Only in this musical version, sex is just one tool in the arsenal the women call on to prevent conflict.

In the little village in Lebanon where "Go Now" is set, life is slow, simple and peaceful. But as in the rest of Lebanon, it's an uneasy peace.

The Eastern Orthodox priest and the Islamic imam spend much of their time preaching calm. The mayor makes sure to slap both Christian and Muslim voters on the back, equally.

The townsfolk fret over when the only bridge that allows easy access to the outside world will be repaired, and which suitor the sultry cafe owner Amale (Nadine Labaki, who co-wrote and directed this) will end up with. If she marries outside of her heritage, somebody will "gain a Christian, or lose a Muslim."

Until, that is, the kids get the idea of improving TV reception. It takes a lot of trouble. There's a minefield to avoid, a ridge to climb, an antenna to aim. And when they succeed, the whole village gathers to watch the news. That's when the trouble starts. One man's "sectarian violence" is another's excuse to bring the conflict home.

"You think you're better than us?"

"We're BAPTIZED."

The news sets off a sequence of events that leads to the church and the mosque being desecrated with the men of the separate factions off in search of the guns they buried years ago.

The priest and the imam are at a loss. So the women, Muslim and Christian, take matters into their own hands. And sabotaging the TV is just the first step.

Labaki, as director, handles the escalation in accidents and provocations with a funereal flair. The movie mimics the slow pace of life there.

Russian exotic dancers are hijacked to distract the menfolk. "What's your name? Katyusha? Like the rocket?" The ones Hamas fires into Israel every few days?

The film allows us to be flies on the wall, observing life in this backward corner of the Middle East. There are laughs in the many misunderstandings, in the amusing ways the locals have found to show their displeasure at the other clan or tribe in town. But as "fly on the wall" implies, "Where Do We Go Now?" is a slow-moving movie.

And then there are the handful of scenes in which it lapses into a musical. There is a chorus line of women, in black, in mourning. A favorite moment? Every woman in town gathering to cook and sing what I can only call "The hash brownie song." Yeah, that'll keep their minds off civil war.

"Where Do We Go Now?", in Arabic, Russian and English, isn't a great film but it is an entertaining one, a touchy subject given a feel-good flavor by a leading Lebanese actress and director. And if one of the consequences of this well-intentioned farce is greater cross-cultural understanding, that's not a bad direction to take a film that can't answer the troubling question in its own title.

Where Do We Go Now? is rated PG-13 for thematic drug material, some sensuality and violent images; running time: 110 minutes.

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