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

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The Infidel


The Infidel

Omed Djalili spontaneously breaks out into a rendition of "If I Were a Rich Man."

(2010) Comedy (Tribeca) Omid Djalili, Richard Schiff, Archie Panjabi, Igal Naor, Mina Anwar, Amit Shah, Soraya Radford, Miranda Hart, Matt Lucas, James Floyd, Leah Fatania, Ravin Ganatra, Bhasker Patel, Michele Austin, Rod Silvers. Directed by Josh Appignanesi

The variety and scope of cultural diversity among humans is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that it gives us so many different viewpoints about the human condition; a curse in that it divides us more than unites us, causes suspicion and violence. Nowhere is that more true than in the middle east.

In that case, it is religion that divides – Muslim and Jew. Each suspicious of the other, each determined to protect themselves in the name of their religion, meaning that if the other one dies, so be it.

Mahmud Nasir (Djalili) is a Muslim living in London. He’s not one of the fundamentalist sorts, but more of a loose, moderate sort – he doesn’t always follow the ways of the Koran to the letter in other words. His son Rashid (Shah) is in love with Uzma (Radford) whose mother has just married Arshad El-Masri (Naor), a fundamentalist fireball whose politics Mahmud doesn’t particularly agree with. He’d much rather watch old videos of the deceased ’80s pop legend Gary Page (Floyd) but since his son needs him to be an ultra-Muslim to impress his prospective father-in-law, Mahmud is willing to do it.

Then, while cleaning out his late mother’s house, he finds some disturbing news. It turns out his mother wasn’t his birth mother – he was adopted. Some digging results in further distress – it turns out that Mahmud was born to a Jewish family and his real name is Solly Shimshillewitz.  I think finding out your name is Solly Shimshillewitz might be distressing to anyone.

A little bit ashamed and scared of what it would mean if his family found out, Mahmud at first hides his newfound background but curious about his heritage, he seeks a neighbor, an American Jewish cabdriver named Lenny (Schiff) to find out more about his Jewishness. Lenny teaches him a few things, like how to say “Oy vay!” and how to dance like Topol. I’m sure the JDL didn’t have any objections to any of those stereotypes.

In the meantime he gets caught up in trying to hide his new identity from his family and friends and to hide his old identity from his new friends. When he gets caught out as you know he has to, he stands to lose everything – including his identity.

This British film has gotten a fair amount of praise in both critical and film festival circles, although it got only a cursory release here in the States. One has to give the filmmakers props for tackling such a sensitive, hot-button issue in the way that they did.

However, good intentions aside, not everything works here. Some of the jokes are simply put, not that funny. The ending, which is a bit out of left field, weakens the movie overall and was a bit of a disappointment. However, the movie works a very good percentage of the time.

Djalili is best known to American audiences as the prison warden in The Mummy (who meets a pretty nasty end) but is better known in Britain as a stand-up comic (he performed for “Comic Relief” in 2004) and his act often contains bits about his life as an Anglo-Iranian, growing up in a Persian household in Britain. He is certainly well-suited for the role and is thoroughly likable in it.

It’s not a bad movie, but it isn’t as good as it might have been either. It’s got enough laughs to make it worth your while, but not enough to inspire a more than cursory search for it. It’s one of those in-between movies that has merit enough to recommend it, but not enough to really praise it. If you have the opportunity to see it, by all means do. I just wouldn’t make a lot of effort to seek it out.

WHY RENT THIS: Some interesting insights about cultural differences. Very funny when it works.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the humor is a bit broad and the ending is a little bit false.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few F bombs but that’s about it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While BBC Films helped develop the script, they withdrew from further involvement after the Andrew Sachs/Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross scandal made the Beeb somewhat sensitive to any material that might be even a little offensive.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel and what the filmmakers call “bonus jokes” which are essentially deleted scenes.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Information unavailable.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: New Year’s Eve

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

A Prophet (Un prophete)


A Prophet (Un Prophete)

Cesar is crimelord over all he surveys.

(Sony Classics) Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif, Hichem Yacoubi, Reda Kateb, Jean-Philippe Ricci, Gilles Cohen, Antoine Basler, Leila Bakhti. Directed by Jacques Audiard

Prison is a human cesspool. We put all of our bad apples in one basket and expect every apple we throw in afterwards to somehow come out good. It doesn’t happen that way with apples, nor with people.

Malik El Djebena (Rahim) has been in trouble with the law since he was very young. Now, his crimes (apparently he attacked a police officer although it’s never stated outright) have landed him in an adult prison for the first time, with a six year sentence. He is understandably nervous, being neither an intimidating physical specimen nor a particularly violent person.

He is street smart rather than book-learned. He cannot read and he can barely write much more than signing his own name. The only thing he has going for him is a highly developed survival instinct, something that will serve him particularly well in this prison which is not controlled by the guards or the warden, but by a troll of a man named Cesar Luciani (Arestrup). Cesar is the leader of the Corsican crime faction in the prison, reporting in turn to shadowy people outside of the prison.

Cesar walks with impunity in places other prisoners dare not go. He is surrounded by bodyguards and has a cell phone from which orders come down, and one has; Reyeb, an Arabic criminal who will soon be testifying in court will be housed in the prison until the trial. Cesar needs to make sure that the man doesn’t make it to court.

Unfortunately, Cesar’s tentacles don’t extend far beyond his own immediate world. Reyeb is being housed in a wing where prisoners, including newcomer Malik, are kept “under observation” until it is deemed they are fit to join the general observation, after which he will be moved to the wing where the Muslim prisoners are kept, and where he will be beyond Cesar’s reach.

Cesar knows he must strike swiftly while the prisoner is in the temporary wing, but if he uses one of his men to do the deed, it would likely be traced back to him. When the newcomer shows sexual interest in Malik (who showers in the stall next to him), Cesar realizes he has his solution.

Malik is given no real options; he has never killed before, but he must kill this stranger or else Cesar will kill him. That Cesar will carry out that threat is made very clear to Malik, who is reluctant to cross this particular line. A lieutenant instructs Malik in how to conceal a razor blade in his mouth and how to strike suddenly.

When the time comes, Malik, given a terrible choice, chooses self-preservation. He performs the deed, but botches it; still, he gets away with it because Cesar had the foresight to make sure that the temporary wing was cleared of people when Malik was doing what he was supposed to do.

This act earns Malik protection from the Corsicans and alienation from the Muslims. Malik becomes a quick study, learning the ways of criminal success and develops a little mini-empire of his own, thanks largely to his only friends Ryad (Bencherif) and the gypsy stoner Jordi (Kateb). Furthermore, Malik has visions of Reyeb, visions that give him guidance on what to do, which leads people to wonder if Malik is something of a prophet. Still, it is a brutal world he exists in and the closer Malik gets to Cesar, the more dangerous things become.

This was one of the most acclaimed movies to come out of France last year, winning the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and sweeping the major categories at the Cesars, France’s version of the Oscars. Speaking of the Oscars, it was nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category, losing out to Argentina’s The Secret in Their Eyes.

This is a stark, grey movie with little color; the bleakness of the prison surroundings prevents that and that’s mostly where this movie takes place. It is characterized by some startling performances, particularly Arestrup as Luciani. His eyes are cold, reptilian but filled with intelligence. He is a man prone to fits of sudden and brutal violence, but has enough self-discipline to keep that rage in check. He has the arrogance of a man who knows he is in absolute control, yet is so unprepossessing physically that you might think him the prison librarian.

Rahim plays Malik as a bit of a cipher. Malik rarely displays much of what he’s feeling or thinking, and while he may be illiterate, he is still a clever man. He realizes that his key to survival is to blend in with every faction and become indispensible to both sides, which he does with a vengeance. He also observes everything he can and winds up learning enough to not only succeed but thrive.

One of my big issues with the movie is that it is almost two and a half hours long – I’m not sure if it’s a mindset endemic to gangster epics, but this is a movie that really didn’t need to be that lengthy, particularly the last twenty minutes. It seemed to me that the points the filmmakers were trying to make could have been made a lot more simply and in a lot less time. Perhaps it’s my American impatience, or the fact that by the end of the movie I reeeeeally had to use the restroom, but I found myself wishing the movie would reach its conclusion, which is a bad place for a movie to be in.

That’s why it’s not getting as high a rating as it probably deserves. Audiard has crafted a gritty and realistic look at French prison life and it isn’t a pretty picture as well you might imagine, but then again it’s not supposed to be. Leo Tolstoy once wrote that you judge a society by how it treats its prisoners, and A Prophet will give you plenty of food for thought.

REASONS TO GO: A gritty look at French prison life; at its best recalls some of the best moments of Coppola and Scorsese.

REASONS TO STAY: Too, too long – the last 20 minutes could have been easily have been condensed into scenes totaling about two.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some brutal violence including at least one blood-soaked murder, disturbing images and much male nudity along with some scenes of sexuality. This is not for the squeamish and certainly not for the young ones.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Audiard met Rahim when the two shared a ride from another film set.

HOME OR THEATER: The claustrophobic atmosphere of prison life is more suitable for the small screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Oceans