Naji Abu Nowar’s Theeb is a film of landscapes both breathtaking and bleak. One moment, we awe at the majestic splendor of jagged cliffs and rocks that explode upward from the sandy desert in broad shouldered silhouette. And the next, those same formations become burial grounds and dangerous swaths of earth for young Theeb (Jacie Eid Al-Hwietat), towering over him like unforgivable glaciers. If only he could run away and return home, but for him, his fate is sealed the minute he follows his older brother Hussein (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen) on a journey that will force the youngster to grow up quickly.
In fact, the only time Nowar’s film actually allows Theeb to act his age is in the opening moments, as the two brothers horseplay near their Bedouin campsite. It’s that very night when another member of the area brings in a British soldier (Jack Fox) looking for another guide to lead him through the expansive land in front of them. Knowing the area well and lending himself to their custom of one clan member going with another through certain parts of the country, Theeb’s older brother Hussein volunteers.
Upon their departure the next day, Theeb secretly follows the group and eventually becomes part of the journey. The destination and motives left purposely oblique- although one of the British soldier’s lonely possessions is a TNT detonator-we only see and hear what Theeb observes. Often filmed from Theeb’s point of view, which includes knee level shots with the adult world moving hushedly in and out of the night around him, the film soon becomes a confusing and scary thing. Roving bandits attack the group and the violence is swift and devastating. Large cracks in the dry ground that Theeb once ran his fingers against, daydreaming, have now become an altogether too real and terrifying refuge for him. And the flies that were hinted at in the beginning of the film soon become an unimaginable plague that hover around the death and decay like a thick fog.
And as if that weren’t enough, Theeb soon comes into contact with a wounded soldier (Hassan Mutlag Al-Maraiyeh) who will lead him further into the malicious environment of scheming men and their political intrigue.
Yet, despite its moments of relentless hopelessness, Theeb is such a good film because it plays like one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s perilous adventure novels, cultivating the maturity of violence and socio-political maneuvering within the eyes of an innocent. As Theeb, Jacie Eid isn’t asked to do much, but his face registers everything magically. When he quickly grabs a gun from the wounded solider and holds him at bay with it, we rejoice in his minor victory. And when he later falls asleep holding the same gun and has it snatched back away from him, the film jars us back into the realism that the strong often have the advantage.
Theeb elicits lots of emotions like this. And not only does it represent a time and place that’s rarely seen on-screen nowadays but it’s also a film that, like the recently released Beasts of No Nation, proves that there’s nothing more harrowing than the loss of innocence in a world gone haywire.
Theeb opens on Friday, November 27 for a limited engagement at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Check www.themodern.org/films for dates and times.