With its sunbaked vistas, deep-seated impulses of honor and vengeance and lone hero doing battle with nameless outlaws, “Theeb” often resembles a story worthy of Sergio Leone, reimagined by way of the widescreen sweep of “Lawrence of Arabia.” This year’s foreign-language Academy Awards submission from Jordan may coin a new film genre: not the western, but the Middle Eastern.
Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat plays the title character, a boy of around 10 who lives with his older brother Hussein (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen) with a group of their fellow Bedouins in 1916 Arabia. According to tradition, tribal members never refuse to offer hospitality to strangers, so when an itinerant guide and a British soldier approach their encampment one night, they slaughter a goat and offer the visitors coffee. When the men ask Hussein to guide them to a well along an old trail to Mecca, he complies in order to fulfill the legacy of his late father, a sheikh. Longing to be initiated into the ways of adulthood, Theeb tags along, embarking on a journey that will test him physically and mentally in ways he can’t imagine.
The director and co-writer Naji Abu Nowar makes an impressive feature debut with “Theeb,” which invokes ancient lands and values while uncertainty and drastic social change hovers in the background. Both World War I and the Arab Revolt were underway during its time frame, but they hover at the edges of a story that steadfastly focuses on Theeb, his aspirations and his gritty lessons in self-reliance and survival. (The insect wrangling alone must have been an enormous undertaking for a film that doesn’t stint on its depiction of an endless, indifferent desert landscape).
Rather than tutor viewers in the historical context of war, colonialism, tribal conflict and the brigandage that was common in the era, the director simply focuses on his protagonist, who often seems directed by atavistic forces of loyalty and revenge that even he doesn’t completely comprehend. As the quiet, compact vessel for roiling fears and ambivalence, Al-Hwietat’s Theeb winds up being a strikingly memorable character, whose deceptively simple tale possesses both haunting power and a whiff of prescient pessimism.
Unrated. Opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains some scenes of violence. In Arabic with subtitles. 100 minutes.