Movie Review: Oscar-nominated “Theeb” takes Lawrence out of Arabia

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“Theeb” is a Bedouin parable set against the backdrop of “Lawrence of Arabia.”

I mean that literally. It was filmed in the Wadi Rum of Jordan, covering the same geography and topography that David Lean’s masterpiece captured on film. There’s an English soldier with a World War I mission in Ottoman Arabia, with Bedouins guiding him, by camel, across the sands and through the canyons, from well to well.

The first twist in this 2016 Oscar nominee (Best Foreign Language Film) is that the story is entirely from a Bedouin point of view. And the second is that it’s a story seen through a boy of about 12’s eyes.

“Theeb” (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat) takes his name from the word for “wolf.” But when we meet him, he’s just a child learning the desert ways from his older brother Hussein (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen), how to get water for the animals, how to aim a rifle, and when “guests” arrive at their group (all men) encampment, how to slaughter a goat for the meal.

Lessons his father passed down have been related under the opening credits. “In questions of brotherhood, never refuse a guest.” Oh, and by the way? Beware of trusting “wolves.”

The “guests” are an English Army officer (Jack Fox, son of James Fox of Lean’s “A Passage to India”) and his translator (Marji Audeh).

They need a local guide to get them through the desert to the soldier’s regiment. Theeb is supposed to stay behind. He doesn’t.

The boy is endlessly fascinated by the Englishman’s gear, including this mysterious locked wooden box. The language barrier is almost as great as the cultural one, as the Englishman is hellbent on completing his mission, and that mission’s deadly danger is laid out for them in very English vs. Turks, Turks vs. Bedouin and Bedouin preying on Bedouin ways.

Hussein just wants to drop the guy off and get home. The kid, named “Wolf” or not, has no business being out here.

The grim “adventure” of it all begins, and bullets fly and blood flows. Theeb is going to have to grow up fast if he’s to walk or ride away from this World War come home to his piece of desert.

A stranger in black (Hassan Mutlag Al-Maraiyeh) figures into that odyssey, eventually.

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Filmmakers Naji Abu Nowar takes care with his compositions, recreating in the digital video era images that Lean had to get on celluloid, often by waiting on the perfect light.

I was struck by the geological detail of the canyon walls, the colors of the mountainsides and vast expanses below them.

He doesn’t replicate that shimmering desert mirage effect that made you sweaty and thirsty, just from watching “Lawrence of Arabia.” But the story beats — terrorism, treachery, trains and Turks — are the same.

The action — shootouts and waiting out the shootouts — is solid and professionally staged and filmed.

But for all its beauty, the stark simplicity of this folk tale with firearms mean it offers few real surprises. “Theeb” is good enough to make one anxious to see the next film by Nowar, even though six years have passed since he made this one. Perhaps he’s realized you can’t go to the “Lawrence” well more than once.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, violence

Cast: Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat, Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen, Hassan Mutlag Al-Maraiyeh, Jack Fox

Credits: Directed by Naji Abu Nowar, script by Naji Abu Nowar and Bassel Ghandour. A Film Movement release, now on Film Movement, Tubi and Amazon Prime.

Running time: 1:40

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