A mixture of coming-of-age story with boys’ adventure tale set in a complicated era and an exotic locale, “Theeb” represents a powerful debut by Jordanian writer-director Naji Abu Nowar. One of the nominees for the 2015 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, it may not win the statuette but will be appreciated by audiences fortunate enough to find it.
The narrative is set in western Arabia in 1916 during World War I, and the title character, played by Jacir Eid, is a young Bedouin boy living with his two older brothers and learning the family business as pilgrim guides through the desert—an occupation threatened by the recent introduction of a railway by the area’s Ottoman rulers. The oldest brother has recently inherited the status of sheikh after their father’s death, and Theeb is being taught the skills of manhood—like shooting a rifle—by the middle brother, Hussein (Eid’s cousin Hussein Salameh). The two boys make a rambunctious pair, and Theeb obviously idolizes Hussein.
One night, as the family is huddled in their tent, visitors arrive: a British soldier named Edward (Jack Fox) and his Arab guide Marji (Marji Audeh). They ask the sheik to take them to a Roman well along an old pilgrim route that’s no longer used, and though the area is now dangerous—rife with Bedouin bandits, Arab fighters rebelling against Ottoman control and mercenaries employed by the Turks—the sheikh, following the rules of desert hospitality, assigns Hussein to accompany them to the well. Unwilling to be left behind, Theeb follows the trio on his donkey, and when they discover him, they have no choice but to allow him to join the expedition. Theeb is fascinated by the Englishman, and especially by a wooden box he’s jealously guarding; the box is essentially for his mission—which, as becomes clear, is to blow up the Ottoman rail lines as part of the war effort.
They reach the well, but find that the water has been contaminated by corpses thrown into it. Seconds later they find themselves in an ambush. Edward and Marji are killed, and after leading Theeb up a mountainside Hussein shoots one of the attackers. He’s soon killed as well, however, leaving the boy the sole survivor; and in trying desperately to evade the killers he stumbles into the well, from which he barely extricates himself. By then the attackers have left, but it’s not long before the wounded man (Hassan Mutlag) returns, unconscious on his camel. Recalling the warning of his father, spoken over the opening titles, about trust, Theeb has no illusions about the threat the man poses, but he has little choice but to join up with him, and together they travel toward one of Ottoman train depots. There the man is revealed as a mercenary in Turkish employ, and there’s a final reckoning between the two.
“Theeb” is working a variety of themes simultaneously. On the most basic level, of course, it’s about a young boy struggling toward manhood, and seeking to avenge the death of his brother, under the most challenging circumstances. But it’s also about far broader changes that will inevitably alter his life in other ways—the Arab Revolt, which will bring the end of Ottoman rule in much of the Middle East, and the industrial revolution represented by the railway, which, by linking Damascus and Medina, will doom his family’s livelihood. It doesn’t spell out those factors explicitly, however, instead inserting the observations about the region effortlessly into the adventure narrative.
And what an overpowering region it is. Filmed in various Jordanian locales, including Wadi Rum (where David Lean shot “Lawrence of Arabia”), the film is visually spectacular, with the vast vistas and stony mountains providing a stunning backdrop to the action, especially as captured in the extraordinary widescreen images of cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler. The production design by Anna Lavelle, art direction by Samy Keilani and costume design by Jamila Aladdin are unostentatiously right, while composer Jerry Lane contributes a background score that incorporates local turns without overemphasizing them.
As director Nowar integrates all these elements into an impressively cohesive whole. His work with the actors—most of them non-professionals—is especially remarkable. Eid has an extraordinarily expressive face and interacts beautifully with Salameh, with whom he obviously shares a bond, and Mutlag, whose gruffness complements his intense watchfulness. The others—Audeh and Fox in particular—are fine in their smaller but telling roles.
“Theeb” comes from an unfamiliar place but touches on universal themes. It’s a fascinating and moving film, and an auspicious debut for its director.