THEEB (2015) review
written by: Naji Abu Nowar and Bassel Ghandour
produced by: Diala Al Raie, Bassel Ghandour, Nasser Kalaj, Yanal Kassay, Rupert Lloyd, Laith Majali & Nadine Toukan
directed by: Naji Abu Nowar
runtime: 100 min.
U.S. release date: December 4, 2015 (limited)
With its breathtaking landscapes and nomadic characters, it’s hard not to watch “Theeb” and think of how first-time director Naji Abu Nowar must’ve been influenced by David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia”. The Jordanian adventure film set during the height of World War I, which is being described as a “Bedouin Western” ( maybe a Mideastern Western) by the director, could also be considered a ‘coming-of-age’ tale for the film’s titular character much akin to the protagonists in the classics I grew up reading from London and Kipling. As war builds in the Ottoman province of Hejaz in 1916, a young Bedouin boy named Theeb (Jacir Eid) and his older brother Hussein (Hussein Salaamed) roam the Arabian desert in a nomadic tribe with their older brother, the Sheikh (Hmood Ali). Their father, the leader of the tribe, has recently died and Theeb is now learning to survive in the wild – retrieving water for camels, shooting a rifle accurately and slaughtering a goat for dinner. Theeb is unsettled by death though, whether it’s a means to satiate hunger or a floating corpse in a desert well. He is pensive and contemplative about life, death and the future. We first see this in the film’s opening scene where Theeb is intently gazing at a tombstone, but his observant demeanor continues throughout the film. That won’t be the last tombstone the boy stares at as he inadvertently begins a perilous journey of survival.
Much of the film is shot through the eyes of its protagonist. The thoughtful camerawork by Austrian cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler is often placed alongside Theeb’s line of vision. When he is sitting down next to a campfire, we see what he sees – men talking and interacting around from the waist down. The camera is as observant as our young host, offering the boy’s perspective.
The boy can often be seen eavesdropping on the conversations his oldest brother is having with the tribe’s visitors – one of which is a mysterious English Army officer (Jack Fox, no doubt resembling the real-life Lawrence), who covets strange cargo – his curiosity like a sponge that finds any morsel of information or detail to soak in. This curiosity finds Theeb boldly following Hussein, as the older brother helps the visitors get to their desired destination, serving as a guide in honor of their late father’s hospitable reputation.
They travel along the Pilgrim’s Trail, a passageway Theeb overheard the Sheikh mention is one that is populated by raiders and bandits. Predictably, Theeb and his brother are ambushed in a cavernous oasis by bandits and the only remaining survivors are Theeb and a wounded bandit (Hassan Mutlag). Both of them are wary and suspicious of each other, yet they soon realize they need each other to survive their unforgiving environment, despite mutual antagonism.
The name Theeb means “Wolf” and Jacir Eid – a non-professional actor – who plays Theeb, is as watchful and alert as a wolf. Theeb is a character who becomes surprisingly resilient as the story develops, even though his path becomes more treacherous with each step. He starts off as something of a lone wolf, but becomes one who most rely on help from a stranger, despite his stubbornness and fears. It is odd and surprising that this development between an uneasy child and a stoic adult winds up saving both of them (at least for a little while), but it also forces Theeb to grow up fast.
Abu Nowar, who co-wrote the screenplay with Bassel Ghandour, may have created a simple story that feels like a parable or fable, but it is a fascinating one nonetheless. The focus is on a bewildered young boy, who must maneuver his way around a series of events that’s over his head and a cast of supporting characters that may not be worthy of his trust. Theeb is an easy character to sympathize with because of the peril he finds himself in. His dire situations are at a lesser degree than the boy in the recent “Beasts of No Nation”, but they are nonetheless harrowing. The film is accented with a beautiful soundtrack composed by Jerry Lane that is never overwhelming or overstated, which becomes another aspect to appreciate about “Theeb”.
There may be some unanswered elements to the world Abu Nowar has built, but ultimately, in such a character-driven film, it really doesn’t matter. The absorbing geography combined with a compelling lead are ultimately the main draw here. “Theeb” is Jordan’s official submission for the 88th Academy Awards for Best Foreign-Language Film and although it will probably not make the Oscar shortlist, it is still a visually striking film with a gripping story.