Mothers in Arms
In 411 bc, Aristophanes sought to humor fellow Athenians out of their endless, eventually disastrous Peloponnesian War with neighbor Sparta. Twenty-four centuries plus one year later, director-cowriter-actress Nadine Labaki does the same with her Lebanese countrymen even if “the universal theme war between two faiths” of Where Do We Go Now? obviates naming any particular nation.
A narrator pronouncing that she is going to tell a tale, and a couple of arguably unnecessary song-and-dance pieces, places the hundred minutes as a fable, perhaps in the line of Animal Farm. In any case, the reversal final line -- which affords the title -- in a two-pronged final sequence indicates that this “mood of fairytale” cannot promise any rosy future for a country fallen from tourist-Mecca salad days through decades of internecine and international political, social and religious conflict. The Greek’s Lysistrata -- its original title translates as “Army Disbander” -- concludes around wine bowls with drop-dead gorgeous Reconciliation resolving war and gender issues after Lysistrata organizes a women’s sexual-relations protest-boycott.
Burying their Muslim vs. Christian and ordinary catty differences, the film’s Amale (Labaki) and other village women reach a tipping point, get the men high at an Alice B. Toklas-brownie meal, and uncover and re-bury all the hidden firearms. Among their frustrated earlier stratagems had been the importation of fair-skinned Russian-English-speaking Ukrainian Paradise Place strippers (Katia, Svetlana, Anna, Tatiana, Olga, played respectively by Oxana Chihane, Anneta Bousaleh, Olga Yerofyeyeva, Yulia Maroun and Oksana Beloglazovna) who lounge around, burn lobster-red in the unaccustomed sun, and are good-natured and willing to help the cause.
“I wouldn’t be so authentic in a culture other than my own, to stick as close to reality as possible,” three real lost villages make the film’s one lost mountain one, linked to the outside by motor scooter through a defile marked by war’s barbed wire and warning signs. “Real people in real situations,” the cast is sprinkled with non-professionals enlisted on the spot who contribute to the seriocomic authenticity. Coexisting forever in hamlets where mosques stand alongside churches -- national census figures have Muslims outnumbering Christians nearly three to one -- they have their squabbles and spites, where stronger boys tease weaker ones, men toss staining berries into others’ wash, and ladies grow heated over items and lines in shops.
They come together under young nerd Roukoz (Ali Haidar) to wire a makeshift communal antenna and gather under the stars to watch the staticky miracle of a single not-new television. But they argue about which channel -- a movie love scene, a program hostess in trousers and tight top, or the news of fresh clashes and casualties.
The unobtrusive music is by Khaled Mouzanar, who also scored the director’s other feature, Cannes-written Caramel, after her commercial and music-video work. He is also her husband, and WDWGN? gestated from the birth of their child three years ago. Surrounded by violence and death in Beirut, pregnant Labaki was moved to write the screenplay about the mothers, the omahat, who bear the sons who go off to kill one another.
Amale is a Christian and a mother among many, the father of whose little boy is absent or dead and not a factor. Muslim Ribah (Julien Farhat) is patching and painting her restaurant and has eyes for her, and she for him, in unspoken mutual attraction shown in their looks, in a dream-dance interlude, and when she jealously mistranslates between a stripper’s English and his Arabic.
The final straw in the town’s sometimes-uneasy truce comes as, returning from selling produce beyond the connecting bridge, Nassim (Kevin Abboud) is killed by a stray bullet while passing through a sudden shootout. Manless Takla (Claude Baz Moussawbaa) is tragic in mother’s agony, refusing to acknowledge her boy’s death to neighbors, blaspheming against the also-mother-of-a-Son Virgin, and then shooting elder son Issam (Sasseen Kawzally) in the foot to keep him from rushing out in revenge to kill and maybe get killed.
Pushed beyond bearing by this latest blow to their wombs, the ladies of all stripes unite in maternal compassion and sanity. Swapping religions and traditional rôles, and enlisting the sun-boiled Ukrainians and the heretofore not always mutually cooperating imam and priest, they bake their plans to end the “utter absurdity.”
“A fantasy, no doubt,” treated with some gallows humor, this Cannes Un Certain Regard, Toronto and San Sebasián award-winner and Opening Night at MoMA/Lincoln Center New Directors/New Films, is not so naïve as to posit that long hatreds and misunderstandings are this easily solvable. Still, wouldn’t it be loverly . . .?
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated “PG-13” by MPAA.)