‘Theeb’ a stirring survival story of the highest order
Review by Jeff Berg
For the Las Cruces Bulletin
In the Arabic language, “Theeb” means “wolf.” It is also the name of the young man and focal point of the strong Jordanian film “Theeb,” which features solid performances and amazing location shooting in Jordan.
Theeb is the son of a sheikh who has recently died. He is now being brought up by his older brother, Hussein, who (if I understand correctly) is now charged with the rearing of siblings after the death of the father.
The time is 1916, and World War I rages, with the Ottoman Empire battling British and Russian forces.
A desert guide with a British soldier in town arrives late one night at Theeb’s and Hussein’s family encampment. Bedouin hospitality requires aid and comfort be offered, along with a guide to help the two men get to their destination – a well along a pilgrim trail which is rarely, if ever, used anymore, and is infested with brigands who are only on hand to rob and kill. The trail was abandoned after the railroad came to the desert, an occurrence that still doesn’t mesh well with the local people.
Hussein becomes the one who must guide the men through the badlands. Not wanting to be left behind, Theeb secrets away from the camp after the adults leave, ill-prepared for such a journey, as he finds out when he has to leave his stubborn donkey behind after a very short time.
Discovered by Hussein and the others shortly thereafter, the men have no choice other than to have Theeb go with them on their perilous journey.
Danger and violence follow the men along the trail, and as seen through Theeb’s eyes, the film becomes a tale of pure survival of the fittest. It is not long before the tiny group of travelers is set upon by marauders; not long after, Theeb is left by himself.
“Theeb” plays out much like a Western, it seems – the small group hunted by bad guys, child in tow, set upon and harassed by evil people.
Others appear at the well where Theeb has had to stay while trying to figure a way home or a way to find help. He meets various travelers, good and bad (mostly bad), who offer little value for human life no matter what the age of the intended prey.
Theeb himself has had to mature enough to shoot a rifle at enemies, perhaps ending someone’s life. It makes one wonder how much has changed in the last 100 years in Theeb’s corner of the world, other than people having more powerful firearms.
Writer-director Naji Abu Nowar, who wrote the impressive screenplay, keeps the cast very small, allowing Theeb to intermingle with just a few people during the film, including a shady character that first shows up near the well with an arrow in his back. Each scene is enhanced by the amazing desert landscapes, even more beautiful than those of the Chihuahuan Desert. Variety noted the theme the picture “deals with is nothing less grand than survival; survival on an individual level for the protagonist but also the survival of a culture and a way of life. Nowar impressively treats both themes at the same time without overtly drawing parallels and further amplifies what are small-scale relationships and actions by letting the story play out against one of the world’s most majestic backdrops.”
Jeff Berg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Oscar short list film (meaning it is a finalist for one of the final slots for Best Foreign Language Film) “Theeb” opens Friday, Jan.
22 at the Fountain Theatre in Mesilla, home of the venerable Mesilla Valley Film Society. It is my first film for my 2016 “best-of” list.