Desert is a harsh environment for any living creature. As watching those barren desert landscapes in Oscar-nominated Jordanian film “Theeb”, I wondered about how men came to live there many thousands years ago. This is a stark world where survival is usually the first priority above anything else, and, as reflected by the opening narration, trust and kindness can be dangerous for its wandering human inhabitants who have to deal with their meager living condition in the desert day by day.
While the period background of the movie is not directly explained to us, we come to gather that it is around the late 1910s when the Middle East was being shaken by the Great Arab Revolt against the ruling Ottoman Turks. Its young hero Theeb (Jacir Eid) is a boy living with his Bedouin tribe in the western Arabia region, and the early scenes in the film show him spending another usual day around the current staying spot of his tribe in a vast desert area. We also meet his older brother Hussein (Hussein Salameh), and we sense their close relationship as this good brother teaches Theeb how to shoot a rifle.
When Theeb and Hussein are spending evening time along with other male members in the tribe (we never see any female member in the tribe, by the way), there come unexpected guests. They are a British officer (Jack Fox) and his Arab escort Marji (Marji Audeh), and they need someone who can guide them along the pilgrim’s trail which has been obsolete since the Ottoman railway was built. Many people in the desert area once earned their living as pilgrim guides, but their service is no longer needed now, and the trail also becomes too risky while ridden with raiders.
As these two strangers are welcomed by the chief who recently succeeded his diseased father and is also Hussein and Theeb’s eldest brother, Theeb cannot help but curious about the officer, who looks like a nice guy but is quite sensitive about a wooden box in his possession. It is implied that he is carrying out some secret mission, and it seems going through that dangerous route in question is essential for whatever he is going to do once he reaches to the destination near to the Ottoman railway.
Under the chief’s permission, Hussein is going to guide the officer and Marji along the trail, and Theeb wants to go along with them although he is too young to be allowed to do that. As soon as Hussein and two other guys are gone from his sight, Theeb immediately follows after them alone, and he manages to arrive at a spot where Hussein and others are spending the first night of their journey.
Hussein is not so pleased to see his brother, and neither is the officer. Nevertheless, Hussein is adamant about having his dear brother near him instead of sending Theeb back to the tribe alone, and the officer reluctantly accepts Hussein’s demand although he is nervous about this small complication which may interrupt his plan. In case of Theeb, he is simply happy to join the company while eager to have new experiences along the journey.
Of course, it turns out he is going to get far more than he wishes for. As expected, Theeb and others come to face a big danger in the middle of their route, and that eventually leads to a violent scene unfolded within one canyon. I will not go into details, but I can tell you that 1) our young hero finds himself in a very desperate circumstance in which he must defend himself alone and 2) his situation is developed into an interesting local variation of Western morality play as he comes across an unreliable but only chance of survival later in the story.
This is the first feature film by its director/co-writer Naji Abu Nowar, who previously made only one short film in his nascent filmmaking career but is quite impressive here in his confident handling of mood and story. He and his crew shot their film at the real desert locations in Jordan, and the cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler did a stunning job of establishing the stark atmosphere on the screen while vividly capturing the unnerving beauty of desert landscapes on Super 16 with an anamorphic lens. Some of these awe-inspiring landscape scenes in the film reminded me of “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), and I was not so surprised to learn later that David Lean actually shot his great film in the same area.
The screenplay written by Nowar and his co-writer/co-producer Bassel Ghandour is simple but subtle as slowly building up its narrative momentum. I like how the movie inverts conventions as firmly sticking to Theeb’s viewpoint, and its seemingly plain mixture of coming-of-age drama and adventure tale is surprisingly compelling and complex as Theeb comes to learn a hard lesson on what it takes to be a man in his world. For the authenticity of his film, Nowar hired many local non-professional actors who bring unadorned realism into their performances, and the young lead actor Jacir Eid ably carries the movie through his earnest acting. He and Hussein Salameh click well with each other in their scenes (they are real-life cousins, by the way), and Hassan Mutlag is also fine as another crucial character in the movie.
“Theeb”, which deservedly won the Best Director award at the Venice International Film Festival in 2014, is a film of haunting beauty and aching poignancy. It requires some patience due to its slow pace and reticent storytelling approach, but, once you follow its mood and rhythm, it will be a rewarding experience on the whole, and you will come to care a lot about what inevitably happens in the end – and how much its young hero is changed as a result.