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by Jay Seaver

"An impressive middle-eastern western."
5 stars

The Western never really dies; it just picks up and moves to unexpected places in unexpected forms. In this case, that's a coming-of-age film set in Arabia, and it's an impressive, thrilling piece of entertainment.

The year is 1916, the place is the Hijaz province of the Ottoman Empire, part of what will later become Saudi Arabia and currently the home of a Bedouin tribe whose sheik has passed away in the past year. Enter an English soldier, Edward (Jack Fox), who along with his translator is looking for a guide to a well on the old pilgrims' path to Mecca where he would reconnect with his regiment. The old sheik's second son, Hussein (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweihiyeen) volunteers. Perhaps not unexpectedly, his younger brother Theeb (Jacir Eid Al-Hweitat), a boy of about ten, follows, and with the schedule being too tight for Hussein to bring Theeb home, he continues with them, despite the dangers of the desert and raiders.

"Theeb" means wolf, and though the boy has a prickly manner, that's the sort of name that he's a fair distance from fitting, as we see from his nervousness when asked to kill a goat in preparation for the night's feast early on. Writer/director Naji Abu Nowar does not spend much time explicitly laying out the boy's story, but it's perhaps not tremendously difficult to figure out - formerly the chief's son and thus important, now very close to one brother but not the other, he's a child without a clear place or obvious skills who nevertheless feels he should be important. That sort of vagueness is probably somewhat convenient when working with a child actor like Jacir Eid All-Hweitat; it lets him capture how Theeb can be somewhat presumptuous but also lonely even within a tight-knit community without ever having the audience feel that something doesn't fit. It makes the boy captivating to watch - there is always a great conflict between the powerful emotions driving him and what he seems capable of actually doing.

That conflict makes the second part of the film potentially fascinating, as Nowar and co-writer Bassel Ghandour seem to flip the script, pairing this kid who is desperate for a father figure with the raider who killed at least one of his companions earlier, with the audience starting to feel some of the things that are surely going through Theeb's mind. A great deal of this is a credit to actor Hassan Mutlag Al-Maraiyeh, who makes his character feel like exactly the sort of guy Theeb needs in his life - gruff, but understanding, forced to get close to him but with no excuse to coddle. We learn a bit more about his circumstances, and it's an old story that maybe doesn't have a one-to-one correlation with tales of the American West, but the trains decimating a man's livelihood and an uncomfortable balance between people who claim land and those who live off it is familiar territory, and it puts Theeb and this stranger into a moral quandary that could tip the youngster in many directions.

On top of that, it's also a thrilling story on the trail, even if done with camels rather than horse. Edward has mysterious and most likely dangerous business, Hussein knows the area better than anyone, and when things get bad, they get bad in a hurry, with a moment or two when many in the audience will likely jump in genuine shock that what had been a somewhat quiet, contemplative movie will go for moments of visceral shock and horror, and then build the scene around a great shootout that is all the more desperate for how simply surviving may not be enough - what good is it if you cannot move away from the water in the oasis, after all?

Nowar has some help making that central action scene a great one - cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler and editor Rupert Lloyd do a lot to capture and connect great shots of some terrific landscapes in Jordan, but the action never overwhelms the heart of the movie, which is getting to know this kid whom we might not want to deal with ourselves but who nevertheless is lost enough to keep our interest, with a side of feeling the nervous energy of a world with no truly legitimate authority. The 16mm photography, though sometimes dark, adds a bit to the atmosphere even when projected digitally, and the sound design by Dario Swade and his crew is excellent, increasing the tension when need be and emphasizing how any sound in the vastness of the desert takes on extra importance the rest of the time.

Indeed, it's a pretty exciting movie all around, something familiar re-invented in a way that's both unexpected and well-executed. The middle east may be the last place you expect to find this sort of movie, but it's a surprisingly natural fit, making for a thrilling hundred minutes.

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originally posted: 12/07/15 07:22:07
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Venice Film Festival For more in the 2014 Venice Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 London Film Festival For more in the 2014 London Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Palm Springs Film Festival For more in the 2015 Palm Springs Film Festival series, click here.

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