By Daniel Barnes
*Opens tomorrow at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Camera 3 in San Jose.
Or: Loiterers of Arabia. The Best Foreign Film Oscar submission from Jordan and a debut feature for co-writer/director Naji Abu Nowar, the intimate epic Theeb concerns a young Bedouin boy’s abrupt coming-of-age in Arabia 1916. In a miniscule desert village seemingly worlds away from the raging conflict of World War I, a British soldier with a mysterious box arrives looking for a guide. He hires the older brother of young Theeb (aka “Wolf”), the skittish son of the tribe’s deceased sheikh, without informing either boy of the danger that awaits them in the wasteland. Abu Nowar and his cinematographer Wolf Thaler (he shot many of Michael Glawogger’s documentaries, including Workingman’s Death and Whores’ Glory) capture some gorgeously forbidding and textural desert landscapes, and they use point-of-view shots to powerful effect, yet after an interesting first half the film essentially squats in the dirt and swats flies for half an hour. There are some arresting sequences and an overall keen awareness of physical space, especially during a nighttime mountainside shootout, but the film gets exceptionally draggy at times, and it never fully drew me into its world. It’s quite possible that after the recent Mill Valley Film Festival, I’ve just overdosed on slow, quiet movies about miserable people walking through violent and desolate foreign lands; whatever my headspace, Theeb plays like a gun without bullets.