The genial and at times genuinely inventive pic should achieve modest arthouse success.

In a war-ravaged Middle Eastern village, Muslim and Christian women band together to prevent further sectarian violence in the comic fable “Where Do We Go Now?” The second feature from Lebanon’s Nadine Labaki (“Caramel”) offers a clever twist on Aristophanes’ classic comedy “Lysistrata” as the resourceful femmes try almost every means at their disposal to pacify their menfolk. Tickling the funny bone but never tapping the emotions, the genial and at times genuinely inventive pic should achieve modest arthouse success worldwide despite problems of tone, pacing and performance.

Unfolding in an unspecified time and uncertain place, the pic’s poetic and visually striking opening moments establish the universal nature of the theme Labaki is humorously addressing, as a bevy of black-clad women (some in headscarves and some bearing crosses) sets off for the local cemetery, their solidarity splitting only when some veer toward the Christian section and others toward the Muslim. They’re from a place with more dead than living, a remote spot lacking television reception, surrounded by landmines and accessible only by a damaged bridge, where mosque and church stand nearly side by side.

Most days, the women gather at the cafe of feisty Christian widow Amal (helmer Labaki) to work on joint projects and share gossip. When a flare-up in fighting in the outside world incites local incidents between members of the two faiths, the women work night and day to defuse the situation, with some of their solutions more potent than others.

Collaborating again with her “Caramel” co-scripters, along with “A Prophet” scribe Thomas Bidegain, Labaki overeggs the pudding with a surfeit of characters at the expense of emotionally engaging character development. A hint of interfaith romance between Amal and handyman Rabih (Julien Farhat), sweetly limned in a fantasy song-and-dance scene, might have raised the emotional stakes but remains only a comic gimmick.

Likewise, a problem of tone emerges as seriously tragic incidents fail to have a dramatic impact, surrounded as they are by overwrought comic set ieces. And for a long stretch in the middle, even the comedy starts to flag as the women arrange to import a group of Ukrainian “dancers” from the Paradise Palace, but the plot doesn’t do much with them.

The mix of thesps and non-pros might have something to do with the lack of energy in the midsection. So, too, the characterization of all the men except the priest and imam as oafs and hotheads. Labaki and fellow pro Claude Baz Moussawbaa, as the mother of a murdered child, each have what should play as a big emotional scene, but instead comes off as shrill message.

At its best in illustrating the importance of a common female bond (honored even by the Ukrainian outsiders), the pic has its heart in the right place. Despite her film’s failings, Labaki deserves praise for bravely taking on an important issue.

Craft credits are pro, but look as if they would have benefited from a bigger budget. Likable if overloud score by Labaki’s husband Khaled Mouzanar does some heavy lifting.

Where Do We Go Now?

France-Lebanon-Italy-Egypt

Production

A Pathe Distribution (in France)/United Artistic Group (in Middle East) release of a Les Films des Tournelles, Pathe, Les Films de Beyrouth, United Artistic Group, Chaocorp, France 2 Cinema, Prima TV production with the participation of Canal Plus, Cinecinema, France Televisions, with the support of Ministry of Culture Lebanon, Fonds Francophone de Production Audiovisuelle du Sud in association with the Doha Film Institute. (International sales: Pathe Intl., Paris, London.) Produced by Anne-Dominique Toussaint. Executive producers, Lara Chekerdjian, Abla Khoury. Co-producers, Romain Le Grand, Hesham Abdelkhalek, Tarak Ben Ammar. Directed by Nadine Labaki. Screenplay, Labaki, Jihad Hojeily, Rodney Al Haddad, with the collaboration of Thomas Bidegain.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Christophe Offenstein; editor, Veronique Lange; music, Khaled Mouzanar; set designer, Cynthia Zahar; costume designer, Caroline Labaki; sound (Dolby Digital), Michel Casang, Gwennole Le Borgne, Dominique Gaborieau. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 16, 2011. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Claude Baz Moussawbaa, Layla Hakim, Nadine Labaki, Yvonne Maalouf, Antoinette Noufaily, Julien Farhat, Ali Haidar, Kevin Abboud, Petra Saghbini, Mostaf Al Sakka, Sassen Kawzally, Caroline Labaki, Anjo Rihane, Mohammad Akil, Gisele Smeden, Khalil Bou Khalil, Samir Awad. (Arabic, English, Russian dialogue)

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