It begins with the strains of Mid-Eastern music. A group of women, young and old, all dressed in black like a Greek chorus or a bevy of Sicilian widows, kicking up dust with their feet, moves up the road toward the camera. As the credits roll, they plod forward, and then slowly, as if channeling a modern Bob Fosse dance, they sway and bob, dip and twist to the music. It’s haunting, funereal and mesmerizing. Before a line is spoken, we know where we are and we cannot leave.

Once upon a time in a land far from here, in a village where God appears to humans with different faces but the same voice, a group of human beings with identical tongues and hands and hearts — especially hearts — lives together almost oblivious to the winds of war that blow in the valleys and the shores miles away. This is Lebanon during the civil war that began in the 70s and wore down in 1990, leaving behind the fields of dead and crippled of both sides.

But in Lebanese Canadian director Nadine Labaki’s splendid “Where Do We Go Now?” there is a calm in the high mountains full of deep cliffs and perilous paths. Here, a sort of peace exists in the kind of Shangri-La envisioned by James Hilton in his 1933 novel of that name.

The village has not always been untouched, land mines still pop up here and there on the surrounding landscape, to jangle the nerves and remind the dwellers that although they try to live in a peaceful past, the “now” is just outside the gates.

We find ourselves among Maronite Christians and Muslims sharing a small, hard rock space, where they make cheese and bread, raise chickens and goats, some who fall prey to land mines and wind up in impromptu feasts.

There is the Maronite priest whose domain is a humble stucco church with its simple cross and statue of the Blessed Mother with bleeding eyes on its altar. On the other side of the village square, the Imam holds forth with his mosque and minaret that tower over the village. Together they are like a Mid Eastern Cheech and Chong, who secretly caucus in the Catholic confessional to find ways to keep peace.

Amale, (director Labaki) a powerful woman with wine dark hair and burning eyes, runs the local cafe where both sides drink their strong tea, play cards and avoid talk of the tigers outside the gate. Here, while the men work, the women congregate in the afternoons and play cards, sew, sip their tea and gossip.

The women can hear the guns of war far away, and are determined that no one in this village will participate in that maddening vortex.

This will be no easy hand to play, as these deep-seated feelings on both sides go back thousands of years. It will only take a strong wind to blow open the doors of the mosque and allow goats to enter and defile it. Then an accident — in which a simple-minded Muslim boy breaks the big cross on the Catholic altar — shatters the peace. Who was to blame? Who else? The others.

There is love here of course, between the beautiful Lebanese Amale and the handsome Muslim handyman Rabih. It is unspoken, but all around them know it. In moments of fantasy, they dance together in one of three surprising little musical moments Labaki sprinkles throughout. They are not Busby Berkley numbers, but sweet, organic bursts of joy.

The comedy in many of the scenes is broad and scattered in fragments, but there are set pieces that stand out. The mayor’s wife owns the one big television set in existence that needs a place and connection, so that all can get together in a kind of “walk-in” theater to watch a show. All of the outside world they know comes from this television set. This creaky big tube is their Evangeline and their Cassandra. So they come together with brawn and cunning, snipping wires, stealing parts to make just one evening a week a shared rapture.

But the delicious moments come from the women’s plots to distract the men from the outside turmoil. When newspapers come, they burn them. Then, in a brilliant move, they pool their money to hire the owner of a traveling “girlie ” show, so that he can bring in his randy group of Russian cabaret dancers. Add to this, a Muslim woman’s recipe for “magic cookies.” Yes, it’s pure hokum and of course it works.

Nadine Labaki’s cast is flawless in its composition. The men, from the smallest crippled boy, to the ancient holy men are picture perfect. But it’s the women who hold us with their comic timing, wisdom and plots, some of which work, some that only stir the boiling pot. These women could be in Miami, or the Bronx or the South side of anywhere, so beautifully ethnic is their humor. If it wins an Oscar, they should all take the stage together.

The script is a miracle, not just because it’s so good, but because it was written by a collaboration of five people, including Labaki. In a Hollywood production, that would only spell disaster. If the civil war had been handled by such a group, a lot of people would still be alive.

Khaled Mouzannar’s music is as it should be, original and of the land, of the heart of its people. Cristophe Offenstein’s camera keeps its proper distance until the moments when the heart requires it, and in it goes. And to Abia Khoury and Labaki’s casting? Flowers should be sent.

Labaki’s direction is surpassed only by her acting and beauty.

You won’t need to know that “Where Do We Go Now?” has won the Best Picture, People’s Choice award at the Toronto Film Festival, Best Picture at Sebastian Festival and was the official selection at Sundance. Where do you go now? To the Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.