'Theeb': Venice Review

Courtesy of Biennale di Venezia
A tale of survival in the desert in more ways than one

The young son of a sheikh gets lost in the desert in Ottoman times in this drama from U.K.-born director Naji Abu Nowar

VENICE -- A young Bedouin boy has to grow up fast if he’s to survive practically alone in the 1916 Arabian desert in Theeb, the confident debut feature of U.K.-born, Jordan-based filmmaker Naji Abu Nowar. Though the pint-sized protagonist is never far out of sight, the film’s vision is anything but limited, as various encounters in the desert conjure a vivid picture of a world that has remained unchanged for centuries but that is quickly coming undone. Partially shot in Wadi Rum, where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed, this gorgeously mounted if modest production finds itself at the odd intersection of a boy’s adventure and a socio-politico-historical drama, which should give the marketing departments of brave niche distributors both unexpected opportunities and almost-certain headaches.

Theeb (Jacir Eid, a real find), which means "wolf" in Arabic, is the third and youngest son of a recently deceased sheik, and he’s being raised by his adult brother, Hussein (Hussein Salameh, actually Eid’s cousin), the second in line. The story proper kicks off when a desert guide (Marji Audeh), accompanied by an English soldier (Jack Fox, the cast’s only professional actor), shows up at the clan’s encampment, dramatically materializing from the surrounding desert-night dark. The rules of Bedouin hospitality force the family to send someone along with the two men to their destination, a Roman-era well that’s fallen into disuse because the people-and-goods trial it served has been abandoned since the introduction of a railroad through the desert.

Hussein is given the dubious honor to accompany the men across some dangerous desert terrain, which, absent regular caravan traffic, has become lawless territory inhabited by Bedouin marauders, Ottoman mercenaries and Arab insurgents. Entirely unaware of this, Theeb simply doesn’t want to be left behind by his older brother-cum-playmate and follows the men on their camels on a donkey. When discovered after a full day’s journey, the boy’s forced to accompany the men to their destination.

When riders clad in black first appear on the horizon, it’s both scary and exciting -- the film initially plays like an adventure film as seen through the eyes of a child. But much quicker than he would like, Theeb learns about the sobering and very real dangers of the desert, which he’ll soon have to brave all by himself. And through his chance encounters with various figures, a picture emerges of a Bedouin world that continues on as if nothing has changed but that has unwittingly entered the modern era, an era of no return.

Though the film stays close to the naive if resourceful point-of-view of the title character, adult audiences will have no problem picking up on all the harbingers of change that appear in the film, including the railroad, which made Bedouin caravans irrelevant, and the armed presence of European powers, Arab revolutionaries and the dwindling and corrupt Ottoman forces, whose respective strengths and weaknesses would end up drastically changing the political landscape in the Middle East in the years that followed.

Writer-director Nowar, who wrote the impressively streamlined screenplay with Bassel Ghandour (also one of the film’s producers), keeps the cast very small, allowing Theeb to interact with just a handful of people over the film, including a shady character (Hassan Mutlag) who first shows up near the well with an arrow in his back. But the theme Theeb 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.

The ace cinematography, courtesy of Wolfgang Thaler (who shot Michael Glawogger's globetrotting documentaries as well as Seidl's Paradise trilogy), isn’t interested so much in the beautiful landscapes as such but rather in how they can help suggest emotional states and elevate the struggles and accelerated coming-of-age of little Theeb to a higher plane. Jerry Lane’s music is equally tuned into the material, imbuing the story with grandeur where necessary but also not afraid to play it small if small means heartbreaking; a mournful strings solo when Theeb dedicates himself to a terrible task involving sand and stones is haunting exactly because it’s so bare bones.

Production companies: Bayt Al Shawareb, Noor Pictures

Cast: Jacir Eid,?Hassan Mutlag, Hussein Salameh, Marji Audeh, Jack Fox

Director: Naji Abu Nowar

Screenplay: Naji Abu Nowar, Bassel Ghandour

Producers: Bassel Ghandour, Rupert Lloyd

Executive producer: Nadine Toukan

Co-producers: Nasser Kalaji, Laith Majali

Director of photography: Wolfgang Thaler

Production designer: Anna Lavelle

Costume designer: Jamila Aladdin

Editor: Rupert Lloyd

Music: Jerry Lane

Sales: Fortissimo


No rating, 100 minutes