How can women ever get men to stop killing each other? That was the question that prompted Aristophanes to write “Lysistrata” in 411 BC and — the problem still being with us 2,500 years later — that is the question that bedevils “Where Do We Go Now?,” a rambunctious Lebanese comedy with a core of blackest sorrow. Where the Athenian playwright came up with a single novel response (no sex for anyone until the boys behave), director-co-writer-actress Nadine Labaki has her cast of village women throw different ideas against the wall to see what sticks. There are laughs, too, but they stick in your throat.
Labaki was last heard from with 2007’s “Caramel,” a wisely sexy character comedy set in a Beirut beauty shop. “Where Do We Go Now?,” an audience-award winner at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, is angrier and more ambitious, but it still finds sustenance in gatherings of women. The setting is a dusty village in the middle of nowhere, where the cemetery dwellers outnumber the living. The population is divided between Christians and Muslims, and everyone gets along except when they don’t, the slightest misunderstanding serving as an excuse for bloody revenge. When they’re not shooting each others’ heads off, the men are typical men: well-intentioned blowhards whose love for their wives and mothers triangulates between fondness, frustration, and obedience.
The women on both sides of the religious divide convene in the local cafe run by Amale (Labaki) to ponder strategies. These include monkeywrenching the village’s only TV set (to prevent newscasts of sectarian strife from inflaming the men) and hiring a quartet of Ukrainian strippers for diversionary purposes. Each plan works for a while; each is ultimately powerless to stop violence erupting like the weeds that choke the village square. Even the local priest (Samir Awad) and imam (Ziad Abou Absi), old friends and institutional neighbors, can’t stem the bloody tit-for-tat.
Labaki is a forceful director and a stunning screen presence, but “Where Do We Go Now?” suffers from diffuseness. There are too many of the women’s plans for any one to gather strength, too many characters for any except Amale and the town shopkeeper (Claude Baz Moussawbaa) to have impact. The mayor’s wife, a dreadnought played by Yvonne Malouf, has a riotous scene in which she pretends to be possessed by the spirit of the Virgin Mary, but then it’s off to the next bit of chicanery. Aside from a hunky Muslim handyman (Julien Farhat) lusted after by the Christian Amale, the individual men barely register. There are even too many genres: At times, the movie briefly whirls into a musical, and the mournful dance number of the opening scene promises a delightful sociopolitical mash-up that never materializes.
Yet “Where Do We Go Now?” has a heart and an anger to offset its structural fuzziness. It’s refreshingly open-minded about faith, too. Some of the characters are devout, others could not care less, and all have photos of dead husbands and sons on the wall, so what, in the end, does religion get you? In the final scenes, after the women play their trump card — which I won’t spoil other than to say it put me in mind of Dr. Seuss’s Star-Belly Sneetches — you can feel Labaki hold her breath from the sheer effrontery of her thinking. Then she leaves it up to us to figure out how to start breathing again.
Ty Burr can be reached at tburr
@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.