'Eyes of a Thief': Rio de Janeiro Review

Courtesy of Ustura Films
Political film making at its most tellingly personal and accessible

Palestine’s 2015 Oscars submission follows the quest of a bereaved husband for his wife and child

Eyes of a Thief is one of those films whose very existence is against the odds, and the conditions under which it was shot, in the Palestinian territories, were indeed adverse. Less a Palestinian film as such than a film which happens to have been made in the West Bank, it tells a story of families broken by violence, a story which is both the product of a particular time and place and universal -- though of course its provenance means it’s more likely than most to be prejudged by viewers of all political persuasions.

That said, Thief is a fine film which, like Najwa Najjar's first feature Pomegranates and Myrrh, wraps the personal and the political into a seamless whole, using the framework of a psychological thriller as a vehicle for its enquiry into the effects of physical and psychological violence on the people compelled to live under it. A quietly gripping storyline and a well-realized micro-portrait of a society are just two of the qualities of a film which, given that it's Palestine’s Oscars nomination, looks set to replicate the earlier film’s international festival journey.

The story is based on events in 2002 that took place in the the valley between Nablus and Ramallah which gives the film its name. Ten years after being hospitalized during opening scenes of confusion which the rest of the film unpacks, water engineer Tareq (Egyptian actor Khaled Abol Naga, who’s also, significantly for the film, well-known for his human rights activism on behalf of children) emerges from prison in the West Bank. He returns to his family home in search of his missing wife Houda (Maisa Abdel Hadi) and daughter, but soon learns that his wife is dead.

In the town of Sebastia, Tareq befriends local businessman Adel (Suhail Haddad), who offers him engineering repair work and a roof at a local seamstress’ workshop where Leila (Algerian singer-songwriter Souad Massi) is employed. Leila and Adel are due to be married: together they are raising a young girl, Malak (Malak Ermileh), a wild child whom the local boys use to thieve for them, since girls attract less suspicion in this regard. With some difficulty, Tareq befriends Malak, who may or may not be his real daughter, but his doing so raises Adel’s suspicions about his motives. The possibility of a Tareq/Leila romance is suggested, like much else in the film, more through expression and gesture than through dialogue.

Brief flashbacks flesh out the narrative, well-judged in terms of both length and impact, but not always necessary to sustain the drama. Things wind up to a coup de theatre which may be based on real events, but which, given the quietness and delicacy of what has gone before, feels excessively staged.

Read more Palestine Selects 'Eyes of a Thief' for Foreign-Language Category

This busy, subtly-engineered and skillfully delivered plot, though, is only the psychological thriller vehicle that Najjar is using to explore a range of themes which are at once highly specific -- the particular social conditions at work in a territory under occupation, and how such conditions affect people -- and universal, since Najjar, like other members of the current crop of Palestinian film makers, is more interested in those people than she is in creating political propaganda. Indeed, the film's even-handedness is striking: none of the characters are mere ideological mouthpieces, and nobody is all sinner or saint, Tareq least of all. One of Najjar's aims is to make audiences reflect upon the fine line separating resistance from terrorism.

This is Tareq’s story, presented by photographer Tobias Datum with a hand-held urgency that mainly uses intimate medium shots or close-ups. Since Tareq’s quest runs parallel with the viewer’s until pretty much the final reveal, and since Tareq, though obviously haunted, is unable to share what he knows with others about his personal and political past, his motives remain frustratingly just out of reach for much of the film, making him a perhaps over-enigmatic figure on which to hang an entire drama. Not until Adel finds out what he needs to know about Tareq is the viewer able to do the same.

Several scenes take place either in the sunlit workshop, a sanctum where the women are happy and speak freely (as long as there are no men around: Najjar's focus is as much on sexual divisions as on political ones). Indeed, Leila is particularly tight-lipped, having realized that silence is probably the best policy. In the coffee shop, on the other hand, there is suspicion and unease as the outsider Tareq seeks to become a part of the community: luckily, the soccer on the TV prevents the conversation from becoming too awkward.

There are multiple moments of telling human subtlety which define the film’s tone. One has Leila purposefully heading towards the place Tareq is teaching Malak how to play billiards with the intention of removing the girl from him; but recognizing the purely human bond between the surrogate father and daughter, Leila turns and walks away.

One brief, pastoral scene in particular stands out for its air of unfettered joy: a short bike ride with Tareq, Malak and Malak’s younger brother, for once all laughing. This is about as far from politics as the characters are able to travel. It’s a necessarily brief, seconds-long vignette which shows how things should but cannot be, in a climate in which inescapable violence has contaminated even the closest of human bonds, and for generations.

Production company: Ustura Films, AARC, MACT Films, Oktober Films
Cast: Khaled Abol Naga, Souad Massi, Malak Ermili, Suheil Haddad, Waled Abed Alsalam, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Fahad Jabali
Director, screenwriter: Najwa Najjar
Producers: Hani E. Kort, Najwa Najjar, Mustafa Orif, Antoine Clermont de Tonnerre
Director of photography: Tobias Datum
Production designer: Rafat Assad
Editors: Eyas Salman, Patricia Rommel, Xavier Box, Panos Yoursaras
Composer: Tamer Karawan, Souad Massi
Sales: Ustura Films

No rating
98 minutes