Where Do We Go Now?/Et Maintenant On Va Où?
Directed by Sally Potter. Starring Elle Fanning, Alice Englert, Christina Hendricks, Timothy Spall, Oliver Platt, Annette Bening 15A cert, Cineworld/IFI/ Light House, Dublin, 90 min
ALLOW ME to begin by being most unfair to Nadine Labaki’s often charming, though ultimately rather scattershot follow-up to the much admired Caramel (2007).
There was, in the 1970s, a notorious British situation comedy called Mind Your Language. A black man and a white man, next-door neighbours, spent their days exchanging racial epithets while their respective wives cast their exasperated eyes to heaven. The series was not known for its progressive politics. But it did, at least, acknowledge that, if women ruled the Earth, the planet might be a nicer place to live.
Where Do We Go Now?, set, like Caramel, in the Middle East, pushes this supposition to breaking point. Almost all the men are oafs, bigots or blunderers. Almost all the women are generous, tolerant and honest.
Trouble arrives in a remote village when somebody manages to get a television working. News of political discontent in the outer world triggers a dispute between Christian and Muslim citizens. When blood appears in the font of the church, the Christian men flail violently at Muslim children in the street. The situation gets steadily more serious until lives are at risk.
Meanwhile, the women of the village continue to chat tolerantly in a cafe run by a Christian woman. They laugh about their menfolk, but they are aware of the brooding danger. Crafty schemes are hatched to defuse the situation.
Where Do We Go Now? (the title uncomfortably reflects the film’s own lack of direction) is very good in parts, but a wild inconsistency of tone causes successive scenes to jar discordantly. At times it has the light-footed grace of Caramel; at others, the director seeks to have tragedies descend from largely cloudless skies.
Indeed, even the form of the film is inconsistent. An early sequence, in which the cafe owner sings of her love for the Muslim handyman, suggests that Labaki has ambitions to make a musical. The idea is then, however, dropped and no further numbers appear for more an hour.
Labaki also mishandles a subplot that finds the women inviting a group of Ukrainian exotic dancers to stay in the village. The motivations are obscure and the women are largely abandoned by the script shortly after making their arrival.
Still, Labaki remains a humane, sensitive director with a keen eye for the absurdities of the human condition. Though the film does not quite hold together, it remains enjoyable on a scene-by-scene basis. Pushing professional actors together with amateurs, she creates a vibrant community that buzzes with humour and frailty.
The film is trying so hard to do the right thing it would seem awfully mean-spirited to hold its inconsistencies against it.