Awkwardly hybridizing somber politicized drama with regional humor in the style of Waking Ned Devine and Calendar Girls, Where Do We Go Now? is an ungainly follow-up to director Nadine Labaki’s 2007 Caramel. In a remote Lebanese village surrounded by mines and reachable only via a barbed wire-lined rocky bridge across a deep chasm (one of innumerable images of environmental bifurcation to mirror the area’s social schisms), Christian and Muslim men are prevented from killing each other only through the sneaky efforts of their fellow females. Tired of mourning and afraid that any minor event will trigger an eruption of hostility similar to that in the countryside’s surrounding areas, the women—led by a fetching café owner, Amal (Labaki), and the mayor’s tough-minded wife, Yvonne (Yvonne Maalouf)—work overtime to avoid catastrophe, disabling a communal TV to prevent the men from watching news reports that might inflame their fury, and breaking up squabbles over missing shoes and goats running amok in the mosque that threaten to result in senseless murder. When such efforts aren’t enough, however, the women turn to more drastic measures—namely, hiring a group of blond Russian strippers to visit the village (under the false pretense of having been stranded by a broken-down bus) and provide libidinous distraction from thoughts of vengeful violence.
Such a cornball twist fits uneasily into the rest of Where Do We Go Now?, which for the most part operates in a more grim register, and ultimately has the effect of turning the proceedings tonally jagged and wobbly. That dissonance is also generated by an early, lyrical sequence in which Christian Amal and Muslim Rabih (Julian Farhat) steal surreptitious glances at each other across the café while imagining themselves singing and dancing together, an expressionistic moment that—like a later sing-along sequence in which the women prepare hashish-laced food and drink for the men—feels uncomfortably shoehorned into a tale that otherwise treats social-religious tensions with downbeat gravity. Labaki’s conception of men as rampaging hotheaded animals is no less broad than her depiction of females as logical, coolheaded, and more or less uniformly united compatriots, though the film convincingly captures the volatile perils of attempting to maintain peace in an environment so wracked by death and hatred that any misconception or accident imperils it. What it can’t do, however, is locate a consistent tone that might emotionally ground its melodrama, with the material eventually relegated to an uneven portrait of sectarian rage—and the selfless sacrifices required to stifle it—that never achieves either the seriousness or playfulness that it alternately seeks.