One thing you can say about Nadine Labaki: She doesn't lack for artistic ambition.
The Lebanese director, star and co-writer of "Where Do We Go Now?" tries a little bit of everything broad comedy, deep drama, a couple of musical numbers, a bizarre twist ending and a heavy anti-war message in a dynamic mess of a movie. It doesn't all work, but it's fascinating to see where the parts mesh and where they don't.
The setting is an isolated village in Lebanon, accessible only by a rickety bridge on which teens Roukoz (Ali Haidar) and Nassim (Kevin Abboud) travel by scooter, carrying goods for sale and bringing supplies back to the village store and cafe. The village is populated by Christians and Muslims, who live in relative harmony despite what's going on in the outside world. In the cemetery, Christians and Muslims are buried in separate sections, and the village women have had to bury a lot of their men because of outside hostilities.
In the cafe, though, Christians and Muslims are both welcome. Mostly, the villagers come to sip coffee and gossip with topic No. 1 being whether the hunky painter Rabih (Julian Farhat) will ever finish renovating the cafe, and when Rabih and the cafe's owner, Amale (played by Labaki), will stop making goo-goo eyes at each other. One of the first musical numbers is a gentle duet, a mutual daydream as they imagine whether they could dance together with she being Christian and he being Muslim.
When Roukoz and Nassim bring a satellite dish into town, they set up a TV in the town square for all to watch. Alas, the signal brings in the news, which tells of sectarian tensions tensions that soon are felt by the village's menfolk. Little slights, like animals getting into the mosque, escalate into bigger problems.
It's up to the village's women, organized by Amale, to fix things. Their schemes, ranging from faking visions of the Virgin Mary to hiring Ukrainian dancing girls, fill up the bulk of the film culminating in a surprising twist worthy of an O. Henry short story.
Labaki, whose previous directing effort was the insightful 2007 beauty-shop romance "Caramel," throws everything into the mix here, and some individual moments like a comic musical number about the practical applications of hashish are rousingly entertaining.
But sometimes she bites off more than she can chew, and the story's anti-war themes turn as heavy-handed and ponderous as the title question suggests.
'Where Do We Go Now?'
Women make peace in many ways in this tuneful comedy-drama from Lebanon.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens Friday, July 13.
Rating • PG-13 for thematic drug material, some sensuality and violent images.
Running time • 110 minutes; mostly in Arabic, with subtitles.