With its 1916 Arabian setting and its British military character, “Theeb” brings “Lawrence of Arabia” to mind, but that comparison is a sorry way to sell this highly different desert adventure.
The Jordanian production and feature debut of writer-director Naji Abu Nowar is a Western, a coming-of-age tale, and a survival drama whose vast landscapes suggest a studio epic while its preteen hero could almost exist in a postwar neorealist drama. At the heart of it is an intimate Bedouin story.
Young orphaned Theeb (Jacir Eid) comes from a family of Bedouin pilgrim guides. Disobediently, he tags along when his protective older brother (Hussein Salameh) is leading a British military officer (Jack Fox) and his Arab attendant (Marji Audeh) to a well on the pilgrimage trail to Mecca.
Raiders and Ottoman mercenaries have invaded the desert terrain, and, after an ambush, Theeb finds himself alone. Warily, he helps a gravely injured mercenary (Hassan Mutlag). Each needing the other, the two journey together.
Substance and profundity are not the movie’s strengths. We know that Theeb, who initially cannot bring himself to kill a goat, will lose his innocence in brutal scenarios and become lethal. Abu Nowar doesn’t take that premise anywhere extraordinary.
But it isn’t often that one sees a Bedouin Western, and Abu Nowar combines that novelty with solid filmmaking. Dramatically gripping, the movie offers stunning scenery, believable characters played largely by nonprofessionals (Eid, the son of a Bedouin tour guide, carries the drama and gives one of the year’s best kid performances), and a valuable picture of the consequences of colonialism. These elements add up to a unique and worthy ticket.
Starring: Jacir Eid, Hussein Salameh, Hassan Mutlag, Jack Fox
Written by: Naji Abu Nowar, Bassel Ghandour
Directed by: Naji Abu Nowar
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Note: “Theeb” screens at the Opera Plaza in The City.