Movie review: Theeb
Jordan’s official nomination for the best foreign film Oscar is a tightly wound adventure story about a Bedouin boy learning how to be a man on the eve of the First World War
Starring: Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat, Hussan Mutlag Al-Maralyeh
Directed by: Naji Abu Nowar
Running time: 100 minutes
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
(In Arabic with English subtitles)
By Jay Stone
“He who swims in the Red Sea cannot know its depth.”
That is one of the pieces of lore at the beginning of the Jordanian movie Theeb, a lesson that a sheikh has passed on to his sons. It is also an excellent epigraph for an adventure story that combines the tides of history with a tale of banditry and survival. Theeb (Arabic for wolf) has a simple plot, but the movie presents such a stark and surreal clash of values — honor meets thievery; East meets West; the fringes of a world are invaded by revolutionary change — that it feels like something Quentin Tarantino might want to remake.
It’s set in the Ottoman province of Hajiz in 1916, at the dawn of the First World War, among people facing a sea change that is about to destroy everything they know (the lonely railway track across the sands is known as the “iron donkey.”) We are in a Bedouin desert — the stretch of sands is photographed by cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler with a quiet beauty and none of the overblown majesty that you get in, say, Lawrence of Arabia — that is slowly being invaded by the 20th Century.
Theeb (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat, an untrained actor with a perfect combination of innocence and insolence) is the youngest of the three sons of the dead sheikh. A boy of about 10, he is learning learns the ways of desert life — how to shoot a rifle; how to follow the trail of a camel; when a man must put loyalty ahead of his own survival — from his older brother Hussein.
One day two strangers come into their camp. A guide named Marji is leading a British soldier (Jack Fox) to a distant well on the road to Mecca. It’s a road of pilgrims, lately made dangerous by bandits, and the soldier needs to get there for some mysterious reason connected with the coming war. Theeb is fascinated: “Are you a prince?,” he asks the stranger, who doesn’t understand a word of Arabic. “How many men have you killed?”
Hussein, Marji, the soldier and Theeb, following behind like the young Mexican gunfighter in The Magnificent Seven, head down the Pilgrim’s Trail. The soldier is carrying intriguing items — a telescope, a cigarette lighter, a wooden box that Theeb is not allowed to touch but seems to hold some kind of important equipment — on a mission whose gravity we can only guess at.
Soon, things begin to go wrong, an intuition vividly illustrated when the soldier drops a bucket down a well and it comes up filled with blood. Soon the bandits appear, and Theeb takes on some of the themes of a Western, albeit one set in the Middle East: the chase (on camel), the scramble up the mountain to hide behind rocks, the gunfight, the dark symbolism of insects that crawl across a hand or, in the worst cases, a face.
Director Naji Abu Nowar, who also co-wrote the screenplay, tells most of the story without music — you can only imagine the Ennio Morricone guitars that might have accompanied this desperate band if it was a spaghetti Western — but when it comes, the chants of Jerry Lane’s score set an ideal mood of the familiar and the exotic.
The third act of Theeb introduces a new character, a dangerous stranger (Hussan Mutlag Al-Maralyeh) with his own twisted morality. He’s desperate but appealing, a spokesman for the old ways of Bedouin culture, and of its perversion, that are slowly being stripped away. His scenes with Theeb, in what can only be called a Mexican standoff, have a stark and classic sense of peril.
“When the wolves offer friendship, do not count on success.” That is another piece of wisdom at the beginning of Theeb, and it also useful to a boy who is learning how to be a man in this difficult world, at this difficult time. Theeb, which is Jordan’s official submission for the best foreign film Oscar, is a tightly wound little film that resonates deeply: as a coming-of-age story, as a historical drama, and as a myth about the beginnings of the modern world.
THE EX-PRESS, December 14, 2015
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