Where Do We Go Now? (Et maintenant on va où?)


Where Do We Go Now?

The Lebanese team voguing competition is underway.

(2011) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Claude Baz Moussawbaa, Leyla Hakim, Nadine Labaki, Yvonne Maalouf, Antoinette Noufaily, Julian Farhat, Ali Haidar, Kevin Abboud, Petra Saghbini, Mostafa Al Sakka, Sasseen Kawzally, Anjo Rihane. Directed by Nadine Labaki

 

It is sometimes mystifying why men fight and kill over religious belief. It’s not like our religions vary to so much degree that they are completely incompatible; at the end of the day, they’re more like than unalike.

A small village in an unnamed country (but thee and me can call it Lebanon, where the movie was filmed) has been cut off from the rest of the world by land mines, leaving the only way in and out a tiny road over a terrifying bridge. In some ways this has benefitted the village; the Muslims and Christians who make up equal parts of the population live in relative harmony, the mosque and church alongside each other and the priest and imam both in agreement that peace between their flocks would be beneficial to all.

That doesn’t mean they achieved it without cost; the town’s cemetery is littered with graves of men and boys taken well before their time over religious violence. The women of the town have grown tired of endless funerals and mourning their husbands, sons and fathers. They all get along famously; why can’t the men?

When Roukoz (Haidar), whose scooter trips to neighboring towns for supplies represent the only contact with the rest of the world, brings in an antenna, the town once again is blessed with television reception – albeit on a single television set. With it comes news of strife between Muslims and Christians elsewhere in the country. This sets the men to muttering amongst themselves.

Some have no time for this. Beautiful Amale (Labaki), a Christian, is having her cafe repainted by the handsome handyman Rabih (Farhat) and she dreams of a relationship with him. He also finds himself attracted to her but neither know how to breach the subject of actually dating.

However, little incidents begin to inflame the men of the town. The holy water in the Church is substituted by chicken blood. A herd of goats is let into the mosque. The women do whatever they can to defuse the situation; Takla (Moussawbaa), the mayor’s wife, fakes a miracle. Ukrainian strippers are brought in to distract the men. When that fails, the women host a party in which treats laced with hashish are served to mellow out the boys.

However, things get a great deal more serious when Roukoz, on one of his trips to town, is caught in the crossfire between Christian and Muslim militia and is killed. Nassim (Abboud), his cousin, mournfully brings back the body, unable to tell even which side shot the fatal bullet. Realizing that this incident could set off the powder keg, the women resolve to keep the incident quiet until tempers cool down. But can they be successful, or will more bodies be joining Nassim in the graveyard?

This is a story that in many ways is close to Labaki’s heart. Obviously she’s passionate about it, having co-written, starred in and directed the material. She grew up in Lebanon where, as she put it, time was equally divided between home and shelter. There were many days, she said in a studio interview, when it was too dangerous for her to go outside. She got a front row seat to religious conflict.

A significant number of the cast were locals with no acting experience and yet they perform well as an ensemble here. Labaki and Farhat by necessity take much of the attention, having a romantic attraction but even the Ukrainian actresses who plaid the strippers have a naturalistic feel to them. The people here seem comfortable in their roles; one wonders how much of it is what they are used to in their real lives.

This is definitely a bit of a fantasy, a what-if women were in charge in that region. When given the more subordinate role women play in that part of the world, it’s a legitimate question and I’m sure one that many women in that war-weary region must ask themselves as they attend another funeral, or read in the newspapers of another atrocity.

My issue with the movie is the attempt to juxtapose levity and pathos. When it’s done right, it’s seamless and natural but here it’s kind of jarring. On the one hand, there’s a fairly comic scene of the men high on hashish, but prior to that the mother of the slain Roukoz is comforted by the women of the village. It’s an extremely emotional scene whose effectiveness is cut off at the knees by the blissed-out men thereafter. The movie could have been that much more powerful had it been more successful at balancing the two elements.

The village life depicted here is endearing and comforting in its own way; even big city dwellers long for the familiarity of small town life (although not necessarily the insular attitudes which are largely absent here). While there is an element of the fantastic here (there are musical numbers here which also serve to jar the audience out of the movie a bit, although they are admittedly well-staged), it is the realism of the village life that I found stayed with me most, although I admired the subject matter a great deal. It’s not as effective as it might have been in addressing it but the movie is still one I can give a strong recommendation to without hesitating.

REASONS TO GO: Moving in places and amusing in others. Fascinating subject matter and canvas.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks focus.  

FAMILY VALUES: There is some implied sexuality, some images of violence and thematic drug use in one scene.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Where Do We Go Now? is the highest grossing Arabic language film in Lebanese history and the third-highest overall.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lysistrada

VOGUE LOVERS: In the opening scene, a group of women walk in to the town cemetery. Along the way the walk evolves into a bit of a dance which looks very much like Madonna’s old Vogue thing.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Eclipse

Agora


Agora

Rachel Weisz is looking forward to her first toga party.

(2009) Historical Drama (Newmarket) Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac, Ashraf Barhom, Michael Lonsdale, Rupert Evans, Homayoun Ershadi, Sammy Samir, Richard Durden, Omar Mostafa, Manuel Cauchi, Oshri Cohen. Directed by Alejandro Amenabar

 

As the saying goes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It is particularly dangerous when knowledge is at odds with religious fundamentalism. When a society becomes dominated by religion, knowledge becomes heresy and those who seek knowledge become heretics. That’s a perilous place to be.

Hypatia (Weisz) is a noblewoman of Alexandria in the 4th century. The daughter of Theon (Lonsdale), curator of the great library of Alexandria, she teaches at the Platonist school at the Library; while she also teaches philosophy and mathematics, it is astronomy and physics that are her passions. Her pupils Orestes (Isaac) and Synesius (Evans) would dearly like to become her passion, as would her slave Davus (Minghella). Hypatia rejects them all, preferring to channel her energies into discovery rather than into pleasing a man.

While Hypatia is a pagan (as the leaders of Alexandria were at the time), the growing cult of Christianity is becoming more and more aggressive. When pagan statues are vandalized, a group of pagans (including Theon and Orestes) go to teach the Christians a lesson in savagery. Unfortunately for them, they discover that there are far more Christians than they at first thought and whipped up into a frenzy by the street preacher Ammonius (Barhom), the Christian thugs (known as the parabolani) lay siege to the library itself. Saving the precious scrolls from destruction is just the beginning of the ordeal for Hypatia as the balance of power shifts and the search for enlightenment comes into direct conflict with dogmatic faith.

The sweep and scope of Agora matches any historical epic, from Quo Vadis to Ben-Hur and even up to the CGI-infused epics of today like Troy. Agora benefits from marvelous set design, mostly done in Malta where Gladiator was filmed and utilizing many of those who built the sets for that movie. However, this isn’t just war and blood, guts and glory – there are ideas here, a debate of faith vs. knowledge (and Amenabar sides firmly with the latter).

There are those who criticized the movie as being anti-Christian but I didn’t see it. I think Amenabar’s stance is, if anything, anti-intolerance. He also has history on his side – the library was destroyed by a Christian mob, and Christians did murder certain historical figures in the story as depicted. That’s not being anti-Christian, it’s being pro-fact.

Weisz brings dignity and elegance to the part of Hypatia. The historical Hypatia we know mostly through the descriptions of historians, most of which are admiring of her intellect. For the purposes of the movie, a lot of blanks had to be filled in and Weisz does so in a way that makes sense with what we know of the historical Hypatia, making her human and charming, but also devoted to the search for knowledge which would inevitably bring her into conflict with those who felt that knowledge should be best left alone.

The movie wound up not doing well here in the States, struggling to get distribution and then not getting a very wide release. While it was the highest-grossing movie in Spain when it was released there (and won several Spanish Oscar-equivalents), the high production costs made it very difficult for this movie to become popular and subsequently made it disregarded in some quarters. That’s a shame too – this is a movie with something to say and a passion for its subject. Besides, a historical epic done this well is exceedingly rare and as such should be treasured when one comes out. It might be too cerebral for some but personally I think a little knowledge is a good thing. Does that make me dangerous?

WHY RENT THIS: A sword and sandals film that puts ideas at the forefront. Weisz plays Hypatia with dignity and restraint..   

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Religious sorts may find the movie’s condemnation of fanaticism and fundamentalism disturbing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and implied nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Amenabar wrote the movie with Weisz in mind to play the lead.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: As part of the “making of” featurette there is a segment on the historical background of the movie which is fascinating.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $39.0M on a $70M production budget; sadly, the movie was a box office failure.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Another Year

Incendies


Incendies

Lubna Azabal wants a bigger percentage of the gross - and she's not going to take no for an answer!

(2010) Drama (Sony Classics) Lubna Azabal, Melissa Desormeaux-Poulim, Maxim Gaudette, Remy Girard, Abdelghafour Elaaziz, Allan Altman, Mohamed Majd, Nabil Sawalha, Baya Belal, Yousef Shweihat. Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Our relationships with our parents can be complicated to say the least. Often we forget that they too are flesh and blood people who lived lives before we were even a gleam in their eyes – that they were once young and passionate, and lived through times both good and bad. Sometimes, we just don’t know our parents at all.

Twins Simon (Gaudette) and Jeanne (Desormeaux-Poulim) are summoned to the office of their late mother’s employer Jean Lebel (Girard), who happens to be a notary. He has, he informs them, been named executor of their mother’s will. She has asked to be buried naked and face down without a headstone or a name plate. Instead, the twins are given two envelopes – one addressed to the father they thought was dead, the other addressed to the brother they didn’t know they had. Once those envelopes are delivered, then she could be properly buried.

Simon, who obviously has some issues with his mommy, refuses to play her games but Jeanne, who is a graduate student in mathematics and deals with insolvable problems, has to fill in the blanks that have suddenly appeared in her life. She decides to retrace her mother’s steps, back to the unnamed and fictional Middle Eastern country (that is most likely based on Lebanon) where her mother was born.

There we find that her mother, Nawal Marwan (Azabal), was born a Christian in a country where Muslims and Christians don’t really play together well. She falls in love with a Muslim who gets her pregnant which is a no-no. After giving birth, she is forced to leave her village and stay with her uncle in the city of Daresh, where he is a newspaper editor and she attends university while her newborn is left in an orphanage. Years later when civil war breaks out between the Christians and the Muslims, she goes on a journey to find her son, one that will take her through as much suffering as it is possible for a human being to witness.

This may sound like a very dark tale and certainly it is grim in places, but it is also very uplifting. The movie is driven by the things that divide us, but the powerful element of forgiveness is also very much present.

Villeneuve proves himself to be not only an adept director, but potentially an elite one with his marvelous storycrafting here. The movie begins with a somewhat scattered feeling and as the movie continues, the threads begin to emerge into a pattern until at last the big picture comes into focus. The twist that brings it all together is a doozy; there were audible gasps at the screening I attended.

Azabal is a tremendous actress who starts out very emotional, wearing her feelings openly but becoming more guarded as the movie progresses (it’s a defense mechanism). That’s the opposite of how movie characters usually progress, and kudos to her and Villeneuve for pulling it off. Nawal is a complex women, one who has been through a great deal of trauma, who has seen men at their worst (Christian militiamen with pictures of the Virgin Mary on the butts of their guns massacring a busload of Muslim women) and yet manages to find a way through to grace, which she achieves near the end of her life and by sending her children on this journey, allows them to achieve it as well.

There are certainly socio-political elements to the movie as well, with a good hard look at the prejudices and hatreds of a region that seems doomed to wallow in it forever. Yet, there is great beauty there, and the warmth of family and hospitality that makes watching the country descend into the madness of religious civil war all the more heartbreaking.

This is one of the most provocative movies you’ll see this year. It was the favorite to win the Best Foreign Language Oscar this year, although it wound up losing to In a Better World – both movies are about equally as good, to my mind and both deserved it. This movie, however, gets a bit of an edge when it comes to the issues raised and the character of Nawal, who is as extraordinary a woman as you’re likely to meet in the theater this year.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances and terrific images.

REASONS TO STAY: It takes a bit of patience to get on board.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some pretty intense violence not to mention a good deal of foul language and a twist with an extremely adult theme.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The stage play that the movie is based on premiered in France on March 14, 2003 in France and the title translates to “Scorched.”

HOME OR THEATER: I’d see this on a big screen if you can find it.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: An Education