THEEB: A Bedouin Western
Theeb is an excellent film from this past year, and I'm afraid the precious few people will make it out to see it due to the lack of distribution. Had it not been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year, I probably would have never come across this little gem. Theeb is set in 1916 toward the end
Theeb is an excellent film from this past year, and I’m afraid the precious few people will make it out to see it due to the lack of distribution. Had it not been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year, I probably would have never come across this little gem.
Theeb is set in 1916 toward the end of the Ottoman Empire, in a province known as Hijaz (around Saudi Arabia and Medina) where two brothers, who hail from a family nomads, escort a British soldier with a mysterious wooden box to the Ottomon railway. Theeb, the youngest of the two brothers, is urged not to join the excursion but decides to follow despite their warnings.
While there’s an air of discomfort throughout, first time writer and director Naji Abu Nowar plays it safe, in a manner of speaking, by keeping us in the dark. The geography is dwarfing and intimidating (even to the native protagonist), the companions are hostile and the objective is somewhat unclear. Without the perceptive surroundings that embody the traditional western, it’s easy for Theeb to progress without your knowledge of exactly what you’re watching. But when you think about the story, a troubled journey with unlikely allies across hostile territory, it’s pretty obviously the design of the film.
In the tradition of the genre (and narrative structure in general) things do not go as planned, and marauding bandits descend on the small band of travelers. The unexpected action is taut and vivid; the wide vistas evoke an epic scope that’s favorably diffused by the film’s sand dusted realism. Theeb is, in the best sense of the word, an unadorned film. But there’re some cinematic machinations at work, themes of colonialism and war can be interpreted freely (it’s pretty obvious where the director’s sympathies lie), but the film works in much stronger capacity if you stay with the characters and the action at hand.
While it predominantly feels like a western, Theeb begins as a coming-of-age story and war film; the culminating result is an effective thriller that’s accentuated by nuance and atmosphere. Nowar self-consciously utilizes familiar narrative devices seemingly easy. The mysterious box McGuffin, the hostile landscape, diverging alliances in the name of survival; but the second it feels like the film flies too close to the sun, the director cuts off the wings, and we are left with an emotionally complex and an unexpected original.
Pragmatism And Restraint
As time moves on the landscape feels more akin to Monument Valley, and iconography of people trekking to and the immediacy and precision in the combat sequences hint at the procedural realism you see in the work of Michael Mann; weathered bolt action rifles have a reverberating boom against the rocky landscape. Their films couldn’t be any more different, but the choreography in Theeb reminded me of the geometric precision in Mann’s action scenes.
The cast of unfamiliar faces do good work, but the stand-out player is the titular Theeb, given that he’s the lead and has the most screen time it might seem obvious that he has the most engaging performance, but Jacir Ed Al-Hwietat shows substantial acting chops.
Less is More
Films that fall into the neo-realist category aren’t commonly associated with genre pictures such as thrillers or westerns; that doesn’t mean that Theeb can’t be a thrilling neo-realist western. Naturalistic performances further complement the organic texture of the film; the three lead characters, Theeb, his brother Hussien, and the soldier Edward are the only characters with formal names, supporting players are abstractly credited as “guide” and “the stranger”.
Whether or not this was intentional, it still sheds the superfluous necessities we constantly attach to movies, something that more filmmakers can (or should) take an example from. Nowar operates with the understanding that less is more, and proves that you can make a strong film without dumb contrivances such as exposition, useless backstory, and cliched character arcs.
This picture is helmed by a writer and director who knows how to take advantage of the medium; using landscape, atmosphere and a simple narrative Naji Abu Nowar steers this film with laconic fluidity that recalls strong debuts such as Blood Simple and Shallow Grave. It sounds like a cliché to say that a debut film feels “fresh”, but Theeb has a pulse and rhythm that feels new.
Theeb might look as if it’s a message or a”cause” movie, and that it is not. While politics are a part of the narrative it’s anything but preachy or heavy-handed; this is a film that knows what it wants to be.
This was a selection for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and it seems like the Academy has a tendency toward politically themed films for the category, does it feel like that’s an oversight on the Academy’s part?
Theeb is still playing in select theaters while the North American release is scheduled for May 17 you can find region 2 Blu-Ray/DVD online.
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