The list of films shot in Jordan includes some ambitious, visually striking pieces of cinema: Lawrence of Arabia, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Prometheus, Zero Dark Thirty, The Martian, The Hurt Locker... okay, and also Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. All of these features take advantage of the country's vast desert landscapes, using them as a stunning natural backdrop for grand stories about people who speak English. However, the list of films actually made by Jordanian filmmakers is shockingly small. Jordan didn't even submit a film for Academy consideration until 2008 (the little-seen Captain Abu Reid), and the nation's other noteworthy achievements are largely short films that have won awards at various minor festivals.
Naji Abu Nowar's Theeb is unquestionably the most high-profile Jordanian film made to date: a critically-acclaimed “Bedouin western” that managed to snag the country's first Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Like those Hollywood productions I mentioned a moment ago, it's also filled with breathtaking images of a seemingly endless desert, but the story being told is small, spare and intimate. This is a film with the simplicity and focus of a good short story.
Our tale is set in the Ottoman province of Hijaz circa 1916, where we meet the recently-orphaned Theeb (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat) and his older brother Hussein (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen). One night, a British officer (Jack Fox, Mr. Selfridge) arrives at their camp and asks Hussein lead him and his party to a well located nearby. Hussein agrees, and Theeb – defying his brother's wishes – decides to tag along.
Once the group arrives at the well, they make a horrifying discovery: they've just walked right into an ambush, and are soon locked in a bloody battle with some murderous raiders. When the dust settles, Theeb is left alone, and the only living person in sight is a wounded raider. Recognizing that they must set aside their differences in order to survive, the two form a reluctant truce and attempt to make their way back to civilization.
If Theeb has a major weakness, it's that it takes entirely too long to reach this moment. The film is fundamentally about the tense, complicated relationship between the boy and the mercenary, but we're past the halfway point by the time we actually get there. Still, the journey to the heart of the tale is at least a visually absorbing one, as Nowar (making his directorial debut) delivers a series of scenes that feel as if they've been ripped out of an old John Ford western and moved to the Middle East. Additionally, young Al-Hwietat does a fine job of holding the screen: his still-innocent eyes are filled with increasing skepticism and alarm as his story shifts from adventure to horror to drama.
Attentive viewers will figure out where the story is headed early on, as this coming-of-age story follows the path of so many other movies about young men who are forever changed by violence. Even so, the familiarity of the story is part of its power: this is a tale about a cycle of violence that never ends and about a tragic choice that keeps repeating itself from generation to generation. The film seems angry about its inability to honestly evade formula, too. Theeb doesn't quite reach greatness, but it's a noble, honest and handsomely-crafted effort that marks a significant moment in Jordanian cinema. Here's hoping we see more from the country in the years ahead.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 100 minutes
Release Year: 2015