I don’t think “Theeb” stands a chance of winning this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, but it’s a deserving nominee. Here is my three-star review from the Buffalo News.
“Theeb” is a somber, suspenseful survival film from director Naji Abu Nowar, one that stands out for a key reason: The drama set in the Hejaz Province of Arabia in 1916 is centered on a young boy, one who speaks little but sees much.
That boy is Theeb, nicely underplayed by Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat. The young Bedouin lives with his brother, Hussein (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen), and as we see in the film’s first few minutes, theirs is a very warm, loving relationship. The orphans clearly maintain a close bond.
Their lives take an unexpected turn when a young British soldier (Jack Fox) appears out of the darkness. He and his escort are seeking a guide, and Hussein volunteers. Theeb cannot help but follow, and the journey soon takes a grim turn.
This is all a tad confusing, and director Abu Nowar offers little in the way of explanation. However, the disorientation adds to the film, and cements our bond with Theeb. We don’t learn a great deal about the boy, but that is likely due to the fact that he is still in the process of discovering who he is.
What’s most striking about him is his will for survival, and in that sense “Theeb” brings to mind a number of very good films centered on young protagonists caught up in extraordinary circumstances, including Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout” and Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun.” It does not quite reach the highs of those two classics, but it shares the same spirit.
Jordan provides the visually stunning backdrop, one that occasionally calls to mind the Western genre. Interestingly, the bare bones of the tale could fit any number of genres: A young boy and his brother attempt to lead a stranger to safety, before violence descends upon them.
By taking that shell and setting it in early 1900s Arabia, British-born director Abu Nowar keeps things feeling fresh and unexpected. We watch in wonder at what visual surprises Theeb will find during his journey, even if the thematic surprises are few and far between.
That would be the main criticism of “Theeb,” that at a certain point the story seems to come to a halt. It is never less than compelling, but the last 30 minutes, especially, lack the drama of the first hour.
Part of the issue – without giving too much away – is that the initial group of characters leaves the picture rather quickly. The remainder of the film misses the warmth of Hussein and the mystery of the British soldier.
However, these plot decisions do amp up the emotional impact. Abu Nowar stages one of the saddest scenes of sibling heartbreak in film, and also creates a masterful, horrifying sequence in a deep, dark well that ranks as the film’s most memorable moment.
The filmmaker also wrote the screenplay, and while the movie’s dialogue is sparse, several lines resonate – among them, “Brotherhood is more important than your railway” and “God sent me so that the beasts don’t eat you.”
The latter line is delivered by an injured mercenary (Hassan Mutlag Al-Maraiyeh) who becomes Theeb’s unwanted companion for the film’s final stretch. The two have a tense relationship and this leads to a finale in which the boy must make a decision no child should have to ponder.
“Theeb” is a film of sudden emotional shifts, and some strong violence, but it’s one some adolescents may find riveting. This tale of a boy facing life-altering events is the kind of unique story that could form the basis of a great novel. And by bringing it to the big screen, Abu Nowar has opened our eyes to a time and place rarely experienced in cinemas.