Oscars Round Up: Newcomer Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat is “astonishing” in ‘Theeb’

The LV film team offers up a peek at some of the nominees for the upcoming Academy Awards. Be sure to read the first in this series, John Rigby’s review of ’45 Years.’ Also, check out the article from Issue 193 on the Englert/FilmScene Hollywood Live! party.

Today, Warren Sprouse reviews Best Foreign Film nominee ‘Theeb,’ directed by Naji Abu Nowar.

While the wagering cinephile will probably bet on Laszlo Nemes’ Son of Saul to win the foreign language Oscar this year, we can reasonably wonder what was going on in the cinema of countries not obsessed with the darkest hours of modern Europe. In the cold months leading up to awards season, the hostile and relentless warmth of early 20th century Arabia on display in Naji Abu Nowar’s Theeb offers an alternate, though almost equally bleak, vision of human failures in time of trouble. The title character, whose name in Arabic means ‘wolf’, is the youngest brother in a Bedouin family of guides who assist pilgrims across the desert on the holy trek to Mecca and Medina. Their life has recently been beset by misfortune in the death of their father (whose dreamy voiceover opens the film) and more generally so by the construction of the railroad, which is similarly destroying their family trade.

Without warning or context, the family one night welcomes a British army officer and his Bedouin translator on their journey to join other troops and complete a military mission of undescribed nature, though it seems to involve dynamite. Theeb’s older brother, Hussein, is selected to guide the two to meet the rest of the garrison at a freshwater well somewhere in the desert. Theeb, unbeknownst to his brother, sneaks along on the adventure.

The group reaches the well, finds it filled with the bodies of the aforementioned soldiers, and in turn becomes hunted by the bandits or mercenaries who seem to have killed them. This leads to disastrous outcomes for everyone involved and leaves Theeb alone in the desert surrounded by corpses, without food, much water, or any means to navigate his way back to his village. But wait, it gets worse: Eventually, one of the raiders makes his way back to the well — weak, starving, dehydrated and suffering from a gunshot wound in the leg. Over the remaining course of the film, Theeb revives and nurses this bandit, and accompanies him back toward his homeland. The tension and tentativeness of this relationship forms the narrative framework for the film’s second half.

Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat in 'Theeb'
Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat in a still from ‘Theeb’

The gorgeously forbidding landscapes of Nowar’s native Jordan, where Theeb was filmed, perfectly frame the themes of mistrust, revenge and deceit but also those of hospitality, fraternal love and sacrifice with which the film is equally concerned. Fans of Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky, or any of the Paul Bowles stories that inspired it, will recognize a similar emphasis on the absolute indifference of the open desert to the desperate suffering of humans. Viewers will of course also be reminded of David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia, though sort of in reverse. In Nowar’s film, heroism is utterly absent and the dashing Englishman is killed within the first 30 minutes. Choices and circumstances that may well have crushed Peter O’Toole are thrust upon a 10-year old Bedouin boy. Nowar himself has compared Theeb to a spaghetti western, set at a little later time period and an entirely different context. (Plus with camels.) Though he will remind no one of Clint Eastwood, Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat, who plays the title character, is astonishing in his first film role ever, especially in his silences and his composed portrayal of inner terror. Over the length of the film, Jacir Eid skillfully reveals his character becoming his namesake.

Though Theeb is the first Oscar nomination for Jordan in this category, it shares many themes with the other Oscar contenders — the superhuman survival capacities of the very young (Room), the natural world as central character (The Revenant), and the relentless harshness of pretty much all deserts (Mad Max- Fury Road). Nowar’s fine film will seem both distinctively foreign and surprisingly familiar; it is well worth a look.

A still from 'Theeb'
A still from ‘Theeb’

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