Greetings again from the darkness. The first film from Jordan to be nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar has drawn comparisons to the epic classic Lawrence of Arabia, and the legendary Monument Valley canon of John Ford. This feature film debut of writer/director Naji Abu Nowar takes a more intimate approach in being more while also being less.
It’s 1916 in Hijaz Province, Arabia – nearing the end of the Ottoman Empire – and the film opens with a voiceover of fatherly advice that provides our basic introduction to the tribe’s customs. Soon enough we are watching a couple of Bedoin brothers doing typical brotherly things. The older brother Hussein alternates between teasing young Theeb and teaching him some basic survival skills.
Circumstances are such that the boys find themselves on a cross-desert adventure that is both beautiful and dangerous. It’s a rare snapshot into this part of the world as it is transitioning from an era where the tribesmen were renowned guides across this stretch of desert, to the modern era where trains (The Iron Donkey) transport people and cargo in significantly less time.
More than anything, this is a coming of age story for young Theeb. He quickly learns to apply life lessons taught by his big brother and their late father. Each decision becomes a matter of life and death, and it’s the expressive eyes and facial gestures of Jacik Eid as Theeb that makes this so much more than a stunningly beautiful film to look at. The sand, the sun, and the colorful canyons are like so much of nature – simultaneously visually spectacular and life-threatening. Watching Theeb react to each moment through wits and quick-thinking is a unique experience, and when we realize that Theeb fully understands his place in making things right for the family, it becomes emotionally profound.
Theeb is defined as “wolf” and it’s the strength, independence and savvy of young Theeb that grabs the viewer and prevents us from simply enjoying the landscape and photography. We are engaged with the adventure of this growing-up-too-fast young man.