Monday, June 20, 2016

OVP: Theeb (2015)

Film: Theeb (2015)
Stars: Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat, Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen, Hassan Mutlag Al-Maraiyeh, Jack Fox
Director: Naji Abu Nowar
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Foreign Language Film-Jordan)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

In what has become something of an annual tradition at the Oscars, Jordan this past year became the 56th country ever to win an Academy Award nomination for the first time.  Each year lately it seems that, with the expansion of global cinema art house fans in the United States are privileged to see a movie from a country whose filmic output is largely unknown to them.  At least that's how I view it, as I was excited to take a look at this work by Jordan, and as it was a slight surprise in terms of nominations (many had guessed that Labyrinth of Lies, a World War II drama that was more in the Academy's wheelhouse would be the fifth nominee) I wanted to see what made it stand out.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film follows a young boy named Theeb (Al-Hwietat) who is a member of a band of pilgrims in the Ottoman Empire at the center of World War I.  One night, a British man (Fox) and his companion join them and requests that Theeb's brother take them on a pilgrimage across the desert to meet up with some people.  Theeb wants to follow along but is too small, but is intrigued by the British man's personal box, which he believes to contain gold.  They begin a journey across the desert, only to be ambushed in an attack by a band of raiders, and Theeb is the only one to survive.  He then finds and cares for of the injured raiders, and through a situation of circumstance (think Arya and the Hound), they cross the desert together.

The film is occasionally interesting, I'll grant it that, but I wasn't overly impressed.  It's fascinating to see some of our Euro-centric worldview thrown asunder when Jack Fox's character is murdered halfway through the film.  In any westernized version of this story, he would have been the injured party who has to be carried across the desert by Theeb, and it would have been an unlikely friendship situation because of the fact that he's the only white man in the cast (sorry, but you know it's true).  Here we get that upended and it was a genuine shock to me when he died first of the traveling group.  However, the rest of the film largely falls into cliche.  We know quite quickly that Theeb, initially weary of the new raider stranger in his camp will eventually grow to trust him, and the ending will likely be him finally growing into a man and avenging his brother, which of course he does when he shoots the stranger for selling the box (not gold, but instead a detonator to destroy the railway) to a Turkish man, Theeb's enemy.

The movie's best moments are the ones when we get to see Theeb struggle at the well, which is odd because I generally hate survivalist metaphors onscreen.  There's a moment that's ridiculously uncomfortable to watch where Theeb, trying to flee the raiders, falls into a well and it essentially feels like an all-hope-is-lost moment when the raiders cut the rope and assume that he will eventually drown. I get claustrophobia when I have to watch scenes like this onscreen (I spent a good chunk of 127 Hours telling myself "it's only a movie" and then promising myself I would never go hiking alone in Canyonlands National Park), but thankfully that sequence only lasted a few moments.  Still, the entire "lost in truly the middle of nowhere" metaphor worked for Theeb, and part of me wondered if he'd have to stay by that well indefinitely, living off of birds and well water until someone came along to save him toward the end of the film.  The focus on the survivalist metaphor works the best, as did the shifting power dynamic, but despite this strong angle the film overall felt weak and predictable to me, and unnecessarily dour and reliant on death to get across its point.

Those were my thoughts on this movie-how about yours?  How would you rank Theeb in terms of the 2015 Oscar race?  Do you feel like Jordan should have made it earlier, and if so for what picture?  And what film do you find yourself most often reciting "it's only a movie?"

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