Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A boy's adventures in the desert

This Jordanian import boasts harsh beauty and a simple -- but compelling -- story.

Set in 1916, the Jordanian movie Theeb introduces us to a Bedouin boy (Jacid Eid) who's stranded in the desert. In order to survive, the boy must form an uneasy alliance with a wounded bandit (Hassan Mutlag).

Though accurate, that description doesn't do justice to director Naji Abu Nowar's debut movie: A gripping, often stern adventure, a study of tribal and familial loyalties and a glancing commentary on the dissolution of the Bedouin way of life, Theeb attains a stature and resonance that goes far beyond its easily summarized premise.

Shot in Jordan, Theeb makes full use of a desert environment. Arid stretches of sand make the purple striations in rock walls seem even more breathtaking, as do occasional bursts of green shrubbery that sprout up near a well. Nowar's camera captures the desert with painterly beauty.

The movie begins in a Bedouin encampment where Hussein (Hussein Salameh) teaches his younger brother to use a rifle and to handle a knife. The brothers are the sons of a recently deceased Sheik.

The plot wheels begin turning when an Arab (Marji Audeh) and a British Army officer (Jack Fox) arrive and are taken into the small camp where the brothers live. After a meal, the two strangers ask to be guided across a dangerous trail so that the British officer can rejoin his regiment.

Hussein joins these two wanderers for what promises to be an arduous and possibly life-threatening journey.

The movie takes place during a historical moment when Arabs were seeking to break from the Ottoman Empire. As was depicted in Lawrence of Arabia, Arabs were moving awkwardly toward the creation of a unified state. That political backdrop -- though treated in sketchy fashion by Nowar -- gives the movie added richness.

Hussein and his two charges ride their camels into the desert. Theeb, who's supposed to stay behind, follows at a respectful distance. Eventually, he joins the travelers, who have no choice but to take the boy along.

I won't give away more plot details except to tell you that a panicky Theeb winds up alone until a wounded marauder rides into the canyon where the boy faces certain death. Let's just say that this is no ordinary man, and that his relationship to Theeb is deeply fraught.

For Theeb (the name means wolf) the world becomes a hazardous place. The desert can be merciless: One easily extends hospitality; trust, much less so.

Using a mostly non-professional cast, Nowar's movie begins with an admonition about wolves that offer friendship. When the chips are down; they probably can't be relied upon, we're told.

Theeb allows that raw truth to spring from the desert's lonely, shimmering beauty and from the fear and determination of a boy forced by circumstances to confront dangers beyond his years.

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