The World War I-era Bedouins at the heart of “Theeb,” a breathtaking coming of age/survival drama filmed in Jordan, live at the same isolated, unforgiving place and time as those in “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Once again, as they try to create Arab nationalism through an uprising against the Ottoman Empire, assistance appears in the form of a visiting English officer. Once again West and East meet in a clash of ritualized hospitality and civilized modern militarism. The menacing patterns and textures in the arid desert resemble David Lean’s harshly beautiful sand-sculpture landscapes.
Still, the film debut by British-born writer/director Naji Abu Nowar frames its brutal adventure story through crucially different focal points. It follows two young orphans fending for themselves at an isolated encampment after the death of their father, an esteemed sheikh.
Teenage Hussein (Hussein Salameh) is recruited by an English soldier (Jack Fox) and his Arabian guide, who ask him to take them to a desert well-located near an Ottoman train track leading to Mecca. When they leave, younger Theeb, whose name is the Arabic word for “wolf” (magnetically played by preteen Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat), mischievously tags behind without permission.
The quartet find a corpse floating inside the well when they arrive, and the bandits who ambush them not much later make disturbing additions to the death toll. Soon, Theeb learns to use a knife and a loaded gun. Those are good talents to master, as he and a single unlikely survivor are trapped between the lines, relying on each other to cross countless acres of lethal desert.
Nowar directs his suspenseful saga, which he calls “the first Bedouin Western,” with muscular, no-nonsense style, from the breathtaking visual aesthetic to the excellent performances by his nonprofessional cast. Actors Studio, watch your back: These beginners are mesmerizing.
Their fresh performances are in part based on the slim, savvy script. The story’s would-be heroic European, the traditional locals, their marauding relations, even the character of a young boy, all avoid stereotype. The film, which has made the shortlist of nine candidates for best foreign language film at the Academy Awards, feels like a rare blast of poetic realism, part fable and part docudrama. It’s phenomenal.
Not rated: Includes violence. Starring: Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat, Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen and Hassan Mutlag Al-Maraiyeh. Director: Naji Abu Nowar. Running time: 100 minutes. Theater: Flicks. In Arabic with English subtitles.