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I liked “Theeb”. Honestly, I did. But I’m having a bit of a hard time loving it, and I’m thinking it’s because it’s narratively sparse. Plus, there’s a sentimental bent there that I’m not all that crazy about. But it’s certainly worth a look, if anything because it’s the only Jordanian feature ever to contend for a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award–which it did at the most recent ceremony. It’s been highly touted since arriving at the Venice Film Festival in late 2014, but it didn’t get a U.S. release until over a year later. First time feature director Naji Abu Nowar helms efficiently and competently.

It’s 1916, and Hussein (a strong Hussein Salameh Al-Sweihiyeen) and his young brother, Theeb (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat…wonderful), are recent orphans. Hussein finds work as a desert guide, and is hired to lead a British officer named Edward (a getting-the-job-done Jack Fox) across the harsh landscape, to a strategic military position. Unknowingly, little brother Theeb follows. Hussein fears exposing his sibling to danger, but the officer insists that it’s too late to turn back. Upon arriving at their destination, the men are ambushed–and only Theeb survives. And before long he’s continuing his odyssey with an unlikely companion.

“Theeb” is in Arabic with English subtitles, and the sand-blown landscapes are said to be the same ones used in David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia”. Cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler dynamically captures the arid beauty. Also, Mr. Nowar has crafted an engaging story, along with co-screenwriter Bassel Ghandour. But it takes a while to get to its central conflict–and then wraps everything up rather abruptly. Regardless, most of the going is good, despite the decidedly familiar plot thrust. The stand out, of course, is the diminutive Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat. The youngster is expressive, confident and charismatic. He’s a find. But “Theeb” could’ve benefited from some tightening up.

Grade:  B


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