Grade: A-/B+
2014, 100 min., Color
Film Movement
Not Rated (Would be PG-13 for some bloody sequences and violence)
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Arabic 5.1 Surround (with automatic English subtitles)
Bonus features: B+ (director’s commentary)
Amazon link

No offense to James Franco or director Danny Boyle, but I think if I’m locked in a room with only one survival-in-the-wilderness film to watch again and again, I might pass on 127 Hours and opt for Theeb instead.

Theeb is a 2014 Arabic-language drama-thriller from Jordanian director Naji Abu Nowar, who describes his film as a “Bedouin Western.” Nowar and co-writer Bassel Ghandour lived for a year in Wadi Rum in order to get a feel for Bedouin culture and legends, and the result is this WWI-era film about a young boy’s highly unusual coming of age in the harsh desert. As I watched, I couldn’t help but think of the equally atmospheric Lawrence of Arabia, parts of which were also filmed in the striking Wadi Rum desert. David Lean took three-and-a-half hours to tell his epic tale; Nowar takes a little over an hour and a half to tell his, which also has an epic feel to it because it’s about so much more than one boy and his adventure.

At the outset, Theeb (“wolf” in Arabic) and his older brother, Hussein, are talking over an evening fire with others in their tribe not long after the boys’ father, the Sheikh, had died. Into their midst comes a man from a different tribe and an Englishman who had hired him to take him to a rendezvous in the desert. The next morning, Hussein, the most qualified guide to lead the men to an old Roman well on a pilgrim’s trail deep in bandit territory, leaves with the two men. Though told to stay home because it’s too dangerous, Theeb, whom we are shown is exceptionally close to his brother, doesn’t often do what he’s told. He follows the men and their camels from a distance on his donkey, and after a day’s journey—too far and too late for them to send him home— he reveals himself to them.

Nowar uses the Wadi Rum setting in much the same way as American director John Ford used Monument Valley: as an iconic symbol, but also as such a dominant presence that it takes on the importance of character, rather than being a simple visual backdrop. The cinematography is gorgeous, and adds a rich texture to an already rich story.

It’s easy to see why Nowar won Best Director at the 2014 Venice Film Festival. Though the film seems leisurely plotted in the first act, the quickening pace of complications creates a bona fide thriller for the final two acts. The amazing thing about it all is that we really don’t know much about these characters, yet they’re also not so cardboard thin that they’re “types” or ones we could care less about. They matter, their lifestyles matter, and the encroachment of the war and the “Iron Donkey,” as one man dubs the new railroad that has robbed many of them of their livelihoods, also matters.

The boy Theeb (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat) begins with the same level of naiveté as the young lad audiences saw in the classic Western Shane, but over the course of the film he draws upon the teachings of his father and others in his tribe in order to live up to his name.

To say too much is to spoil things, for while Theeb is a character-rich drama, it’s still plot-dependent to some degree. There are surprises here, and I’ll not ruin them. Theeb is a gorgeous, highly visual film, and because it’s also available on Blu-ray, that’s the way to go.

Language: None that I noticed
Sex: None
Violence: There is shooting, and people get killed; blood oozes from a close-up of a knife digging out a bullet from a person’s leg; a man unknowingly drinks blood from a well; flies light on wounded flesh in close-ups
Adult situations: Brief smoking
Takeaway: Nowar has indeed crafted a “Bedouin Western,” and a darned good one at that