Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Movie Review: "Theeb" (2015)

© MAD Solutions

This past weekend, I tackled two of the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars—a category I'd sadly missed entirely during the past 12 months. So in an (ever-so valiant) effort to educate myself, I saw Mustang (wow!), and spent my Super Bowl Sunday morning in the world of Theeb. Directed by Naji Abu Nowar and set in the Ottoman Empire of the First World War, the film explores the theme of brotherhood versus country, and the impact the increasingly modern world had on the traditions of the many desert tribes in the Ottoman province of Hijaz. By bringing in non-actors to portray his characters, Nowar has created a neo-realistic Middle Eastern western that's visually powerful, albeit simply predictable.

Theeb (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat) and his older brother, Hussein (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen), are two of three sons of the Howeitat tribe Chief, recently deceased. One evening, a British officer named Edward (Jack Fox), and his Arab associate (Marji Audeh), show up at the tribe's nomadic camp. Their mission is unknown, but they request a guide to lead them through a dangerous, raider-filled passageway, in order to reach an old Roman well and reunite with their compatriots near the Ottoman railway. With a long tradition of being pilgrim guides, Hussein's eldest brother, and acting Chief, offers up Hussein's services. Not understanding the reason for his beloved brother's departure, Theeb follows behind in secret, and the group is forced to take on the boy in their travels for fear that he'd never survive on his own in the desert. While Edward wants to push on regardless of the risks, Hussein warns of the dangers that lie ahead, and it may cost the entire group their lives.

It's impressive, to say that least, that none of the Bedouin-born actors here had ever acted before. British actor, Jack Fox, was the only professional performer on set, and Nowar managed to find a handful of wonderful diamonds in the rough here. Al-Sweilhiyeen, who played big brother and protector, Hussein, is like a Jordanian Oscar Isaac, dashing and commanding—a presence that I would have been hard-pressed to believe had never been in another film. His ease in front of the camera, particularly during his playful scenes with Theeb, teaching him to shoot a gun, joshing him and trying to teach him how to be a man, but never belittling him... this gave the film so much heart, not to mention, a sense of impending sadness.

During the opening sequences at the tribal camp, there's one thing you notice first: where are the women? I found it interesting that not only were there no female characters, there were no females present on screen at any time. Apparently, though, it's not for lack of trying. Director Nowar was unable to find women from the Bedouin communities who were willing to appear on camera, and no actresses he could find knew the dialect well enough. An unfortunate intention, to say the least, since a film like this had the potential to explore more of the cultural specifics of the tribe, but without experiencing the female side of things, the entire film is emotionally stunted.

Jacir, who played Theeb, had a tough character to inhabit. While his performance is great, and clearly physically demanding, the conflicts that arise for not only him, but also for the other characters, happen as a result of Theeb's obstinance (and, also more than a little bit... the insolence of the British soldier). While it highlights Theeb's youth and naivete, it's also frustrating to watch as the audience. Throughout the film, Theeb's curiosity gets him in trouble, so he becomes slow-to-react, unsure, and overly hesitant. Nowar creates a dynamic that makes us want to shake him, yell and tell him to run, dammit!, but he doesn't... and the irritation rose in my belly through my chest as I threw my hands in the air in defeat. To say that Nowar managed to make me feel something is probably the understatement of the year. I just don't know whether it's what he wanted me to feel.

Predictability is an issue, as well, particularly when you think about how certain events (Theeb, don't fall in that well!) are set up and slam-dunked so aggressively, it's difficult to not nod along knowingly in lieu of gasping in shock or dismay. This is ever-present, though admittedly, there are some thrilling moments, usually involving a raider that finds himself in need of Theeb's help... more than anything, watching the survival techniques of living in the desert, from people who actually live like this, or are at least familiar with the customs, was simply beautiful and inspiring, so I was left wishing there was more of that to explore.

An aspect of the film that I can't commend enough is the cello-heavy score that catches your attention immediately during the sweeping, Lawrence of Arabia-esque landscape shots in the film's open (fun fact, the two filming locations weren't that far from each other). Composer Jerry Lane incorporates a soaring theme that bookends the story, providing a triumphant, emotional boost to the film and the events that unfold. One of my favorite thematic compositions of the year, hands down. It made my heart sing with happiness.

In foreign language and American films alike, this year has been an incredible one for young actors. The movies may vary in quality and complexity, but these young children (even just these two recently reviewed foreign language films) execute their performances by showcasing huge ranges, taking on complicated protagonist roles and knocking them out of the park. Films like Room and Beasts of No Nation, as well, only serve to prove how we, as critics and audiences, shouldn't overlook these child actors as true leaders and contributors of cinematic achievement. Where would these movies have been without them?

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars

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