Christians are from Mars, Muslims are from Venus, by David Bax
Taking a serious societal issue and making it funny is a good way to knock down people’s barriers and get them to really consider the subject. However, it’s not an approach that just anyone can undertake. When the matter at hand is particularly controversial or loaded, making jokes about it is like threading a needle. What’s more, if you do succeed at using humor to open people’s minds, you’d better have something to say. It’s this latter problem that trips up Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now?, a look at Christian/Muslim tensions in Lebanon that is at times both fun and funny but ultimately facile.
In a small Lebanese village that is symbolically cut off from the rest of the country by a deep ravine with only a narrow land bridge to cross it, Christians and Muslims live and work side by side. Things are not quite as convivial as they seem, however. When the local teens procure a satellite and set up a TV for all to watch in the square, the brief appearance of a news story about deadly religious conflicts turns up the flame under long-simmering hostilities, particularly among the men. Shortly after that, a boy accidentally breaks the cross in the church and fails to fess up. The Christians blame the Muslims for the perceived slight and let goats loose in the mosque. Before things get too far out of control, the women of the village band together and devise preposterous schemes to keep a lid on things, one of which involves hiring a bus full of Russian prostitutes to stay in town for a few days, distracting the seething male populace. You know, that sort of thing.
Initially, the portrayal of the village is most intriguing. These are people who get along despite centuries of conflict not because they’ve moved beyond their differences but simply because the immediate concerns of their remote, poor lives take precedence. It will be easier for everyone if they tolerate each other. Still, the animosity is not forgotten. There are clues in where men sit when gathered in large groups and in the ways children tease each other. This is all fascinating but it would be more impactful if the women weren’t so conspicuously, righteously above it all.
For instance, during that initial news broadcast, when anger starts to flare up, the women – who are apparently all on the same mental wavelength – begin arguing loudly about petty things to drown out the sound of the television. (That the television is the film’s inciting incident is another indication that it’s the village’s separation that allows it to function most of the time.)
This spontaneous display of cunning niggling is humorous and it hints at the comedy that’s to come. The prostitutes especially are hilarious. One in particular, who gets roped into eavesdropping, proves to be perhaps the least naturalistic spy in history. Yet Labaki (who also acts in the film) misfires when attempting to balance the levity with the heaviness of the situation. There is at least one violent death contained within this story. It’s not that such developments aren’t necessary – there’d be no reason to make the film without them – it’s simply that Labaki is unable to downshift fully when she’s required to do so. On the other hand, when it’s time to take things in the other direction, she fares much better. Where Do We Go Now?, borrowing from Indian cinema, is one of those movies that one wouldn’t describe as a musical but that contains musical numbers. One of them, a song about baking pot brownies, is irresistibly catchy and a charming sequence.
Of course, those drug-laced confections are part of yet another strategy concocted by the village’s female quotient. The depiction of these women as always being one step ahead of their husbands; of being more logical, more rational and more advanced; of always being near exasperation but resigned to the notion that boys will be boys; all of this will be nauseatingly familiar to any American who has watched family sitcoms. Instead of exploring the conflict between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon, Labaki has simply traded their cultural divide for the less harmful but no less pervasive comedy hack premise that “men are like this and women are like that.”
Where Do We Go Now? contains a number of entertaining sequences. I was certainly not bored watching it. What I did feel was patronized. The Everybody Loves Raymond approach to ending religious conflict in the Middle East is likely not a viable one and it’s insulting to pretend that it is.