A slow pacing to a movie can often be detrimental as the audience easily can be lulled into a state of apathy. The story has to be extremely compelling. The decision by director-writer Naji Abu Nowar to allow his film “Theeb” to be played out with a quiet pace delivers this compelling tale with just the right speed so it can be easily consumed and savored.
Nowar allows the characters to gently bloom against the backdrop of the dangerous world of the Arabian desert in 1916. The development of the story and characters is so compelling, and at times shocking, that the production would have suffered from any attempt to hasten the pace.
Jordan’s submission in the foreign language category of the Academy Awards follows the journey of 10-year-old Theeb (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat) who with his brother, Hussein (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen), agree to lead a British soldier along a dangerous old trail to Mecca. It is a dangerous trip, but the brothers are bound by tradition to help the soldier as a way of fulfilling the legacy of their father.
Originally, Theeb is not supposed to make the journey because he’s too young. But the impetuous youth is soon swept up in the desert trek that is loaded with peril. The trials that Theeb faces along the way help him grow up quickly.
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Nowar doesn’t waste time trying to explain why all of these different factions are fighting. He’s more concerned with showing the importance of honor, family and duty.
This is a demanding role for Al-Hwietat as he must face an endless string of emotional moments with little pause in between. The youngster manages to convey a performance far beyond his years, especially when he is faced with a life-changing decision.
There are moments when Theeb must face a brutal and deadly world on his own. Nowar gets a very real performance from Al-Hwietat as he faces his fears while in a world of isolation. There’s a major transformation by the end of the movie, but Nowar never presses it. It is revealed slowly, mostly through the work of his young star.
Despite “Theeb” being a very personal story, the movie has an epic feel because of the desert setting. This is a world that is almost devoid of life that stretches out like a sandy blanket. All of the actors are dwarfed by the geography, which helps magnify the feelings they have.
The constant swarm of flies that flit around the actors help to underline this harsh world. The flies go a long way toward giving the movie a very authentic tone – it’s as if you can feel the unrelenting heat, demanding thirst, annoying insects and emptiness.
Nowar’s story and locations carry the viewer along a journey of life and death. His pacing allows for the emotions associated with both to be absorbed and digested completely. It is a film journey well worth taking.
“Theeb” is this month’s presentation by Fresno Filmworks. The movie is in Arabic with subtitles.