Wednesday 10 June 2015

Sydney Film Festival (28) - Max Berghouse reviews Theeb

Theeb ( Naji Abu Nowar , Jordan 2014)

This is a superb film. Those in a hurry need read no further.

As best I can, I do not wish to insert too many spoilers into this review but some may become inevitable as I discuss some degree of historical introduction. Very shortly into the film the tribal encampment of two orphaned brothers, Hussein and Theeb is entered by a young British officer. Some while subsequently, as the film has developed, he indicates tersely to his guide with whom he entered the camp that he must get to his regiment. The timeframe would be 1915 or 1916 I think. At that time TE Lawrence had raised a revolt in the Arabian desert allying himself in Britain with the Hashemite dynasty. But there were only a handful of British soldiers involved in Arabia itself, certainly no regiment.
Again subsequently Theeb meets a small group of Arabic irregulars who refer to themselves as revolutionaries. So that could be some part of Arabia.

In 1915 I think (I really have thought that it was better to write a review rather than to search through the net, just in case I can't get enough authenticity) the British Imperial Indian army launched an attack on the eastern part of the Ottoman Empire certainly in Mesopotamia (subsequently Iraq), I think around the Mosul area. This was a very large contingent of troops and the references of the young British officer may refer to this. That is supported by his journey away from the camp to seek out waterholes. It so happens that the British campaign in Mesopotamia was a complete disaster. So I think it is more likely that this is the appropriate locale of the film and it is somewhere near a part of the Constantinople to Mecca railway, in 1915 still only recently completed, and primarily for pilgrims and for the hoped-for development of the area.

Presumably all this would be well known as a matter of history to the primary audience of this film, Arabic speaking people. Much as I dislike pre-film preambles, it might well have been helpful in this case although I don't think it derogates in any significant way from the quality of the film.

I don't believe any further detailing of the plot is necessary in a specific way but, as to other matters, the acting is superb. In real life the two brothers are cousins and their real human bond is manifestly evident throughout the film. The setting, in fact in Jordan, just like Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, UK, 1962) is a perfect recreation/idealisation of "Arabia Deserta". Filming is in super 16mm with anamorphic lenses, which in some scenes creates a distortion to a very positive dramatic effect.

The film functions extremely well on many levels, as do all good films. Primarily it is a "Western" involving a journey into hostile parts and a return, incited by some new purpose, in this case indicated by the English officer. The journey is complicated by unforeseeable events. If the protagonist manages to survive, then we presume he will prosper.

It is also a journey into maturity, of a young pubescent boy, who has to grow up more quickly than he/we might wish by virtue of circumstances. Thirdly it is a witness to change. It is possible that Theeb's tribe have been pilgrim guides into the interior leading on to Mecca and certainly one of the bandits he encounters has followed that calling. But all this is rendered irrelevant by the new railway which cuts down journeying time from a month to a week. With our knowledge of history we are aware of the enormous changes in a traditional society by virtue of such things as the railway and the impact of the war, in ways that the protagonists are not.

Lastly like the Western it is an elegy to a life that if not departed, is disappearing very rapidly. After the incident in which all of his companions are killed, Theeb makes a pact, more or less, for survival with one of the attackers. This is intermingled without any deliberate emphasis, but powerfully on Arabic notions of hospitality and concord. Seemingly Theeb is able to ignore the fact that the bandit has killed his brother. In the climax of the film the bandit takes the captured booty from the murdered party, especially that of the English officer to a Turkish garrison where he is paid out in coin by the Turkish garrison commander. This "modern" transaction repulses Theeb who shoots the bandit with the British Webley revolver of the killed English officer. This is immediately outside the garrison' s front door. The Turkish commander on asking why the boy has done it, receiving the reply "He killed my brother" simply orders the boy to go home as if the explanation is fully satisfactory.

I thought this was an exemplary film interspersing moments of quiet with very well staged action, particularly the shootout scenes. With all that I think it is a connoisseur's film and I think its prospect of general wide release would be slim.

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