I must mention the beautiful mountains that wall in this film. During the day they tower over the proceedings. During the night they completely disappear.
Camels snake through the mountains’ craggy wrinkles. Lines of sediment rich with the marks of the ages catch the eye of a lone boy in the company of men. Theeb, an arabic language drama is a unique visual feast whose elements elevate its already superb landscapes.
Generally, the film does what it sets out to do. The action is perilous and paced. We’re tugged all the way through. Seemingly slow moments are pregnant with meaning. All the hard work is done by young actor Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat playing the title character. He is our tether that keeps us invested. Rarely is a child actor this compelling. A film like this lives or dies on the lead performance. It lives.
Theeb is a young boy in the early 20th century’s Middle East. Unlike the current crop of young people in ‘crisis’ films, leaning hard on plotty college admissions tests and romance, Theeb’s critical lesson is more primal, more alarmingly natural. The strong eat the weak. Theeb must be strong.
This has been a crowded year for coming of age films with so many takes on what it means to grow up. This is due partly to the modern world increasingly blurring the lines of what is expected of adults. Coloring this further is the american notion that if you have enough money those expectations immediately go out the window. So many modern films play with this resultant modern American ambiguity. When will our protagonist walk out of the ooze of pubescence into the light of adulthood? Do then even need to? What does adult even mean? Sometimes we forget the simpler, more brutal time before electricity and technology. In the past, harsh environmental uncertainties forced boys to come of age. This ruthless geography, be it scarcity of water or the inability to call for help, factors heavily into this film. One popular example of these harsher times was the American West. Theeb is not exactly a western. It belongs to the close cousin classification of epic desert adventure. It even shares locations with the exemplary Lawrence of Arabia.
With the specific historical context left deliberately vague, we are thrust into a barren desert world. It’s a world where the central maxims are clear: survive and be a good host. A British soldier wanders into Theeb’s camp. He’s looking for guides to lead him through the desert. He’s got mysterious items and shrouded goals. It falls on Theeb’s older brother to guide this foreigner. Theeb sneaks along. Theeb’s brother does not abandon his guest even as the sand turns red and the camels become thirsty. Hospitality bumps up against mortality and Theeb’s fate becomes bound up in fear and struggle.
Blood poisoned water, camel thieves, murder, not quite murder, triumph of the will and decisive justice ensue. all of these things are delivered through air tight suspense built on the clear fragility and resilience of the title character’s curious gaze.
The sound in this movie is like the desert itself, cold, dark and silent until it isn’t. I physically balled up my fists in anxious anticipation when in the silence after a gunfight a particularly tense building song of intimidation plays through the night. This film has many well constructed moments like this.
This film has commendable desert cinematography. It is effectively measured, thrilling, thought provoking, and ultimately singularly cinematic. I highly recommend Theeb playing Monday October 5th, Tuesday October 6th, and Thursday October 8th at the Milwaukee Film Festival.