A Conventional Western in the Unrelenting Jordanian Desert
Premiering at the Venice Film Festival, and winning for Best Director; Naji Abu Nowar’s feature debut Theeb became the first Jordanian film nominated at the Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language category. Relying on non-professional Bedouin actors, Theeb is an Arabic language coming-of-age western set against the backdrop of the Middle Eastern theatre during World War I in the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan. At 100 minutes long, Nowar’s Theeb follows the eponymous orphaned Bedouin and his brother Hussein as they trek into dangerous land, unsettled by the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, and guide a British officer carrying a mysterious box through the desert.
Naji Abu Nowar, a British-Jordanian writer and director sighted influence from Akira Kurosawa’s famed samurai films. Living in the desert for nearly a year to familiarize himself with the life of a Bedouin, Nowar skillfully focuses his camera on the exotic Jordanian locales to make up for a simplistic plot structure. Shot in locations adjacent to where Lawrence of Arabia filmed, the primary film location is reputed to have taken an hour of off-roading daily to get to; only after the original plan of a nomadic film unit was abandoned due to cost and danger. The lengths Nowar went to find untouched terrain for Theeb paid off, as the credibility of the scenery transplants viewers to the molten 105+ degree heat that his Bedouin actors call home.
The camera lens in Theeb is not spent on only the magnificent desert rock walls and bouldered cliffs; but on the Bedouin lifestyle, creating a sensory experience for viewers. Whether it is macro shots of the thick, floury dough that Theeb rips apart to feed a stranger he finds in the canyons, or a man’s hand exploring the sands for a spent rifle shell, or even the flies buzzing around a dead body; Nowar and his cinematographer (Wolfgang Thaler) use these close-up shots to dramatic effect against the desert topography. Theeb is layered with hyper-elevated sound cues of tribal chanting, mandolin lullabies, and screaming goats at the slaughter. Integrated together, Nowar creates an authentic experience of the Bedouin life that makes Theeb worth a view.
The young actor Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat plays Theeb, with Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen as his older brother Hussein. These novice actors, with minimal on-screen experience, handle their roles well enough to not slow down the story; but their best contributions come from their on-screen physicality. Hussein, with his wind weary and battered face, and Theeb with his naive eyes, unacquainted to the violence that is to come. This cannot be taught, as much as found by an excellent casting team.
With a predictable conclusion and wandering middle section; Theeb echoes time-worn film themes. This cautionary tale of the strong eating the weak, and karmic reckoning elevate beyond the period confines of Theeb‘s narrative. Fans of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns may find Theeb worth a viewing if they can handle the subtitles and (at times) plodding pace.
- Cinematography & Sound: 9/10 – Grand desert vistas and distinctively shot close-ups, along with layered sonic notes, form a comprehensive Bedouin experience.
- Acting: 5/10 – The nonprofessional actors do no disservice to their roles, but add little more than the minimum necessary.
- Writing: 6/10 – Easily identified influences from film history show some lack of originality.
6/10 – British-Jordanian director Naji Abu Nowar creates a vast and authentic world for which his actors play out a timeless and simple story of innocence lost and natural selection.