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Rob Edelman: Two Films

A film with a high pedigree and the best of intentions may be briefly unveiled at a film festival or two before making its bow in theaters. The purpose of the festival exposure is to grab the attention of the media and win the applause of audiences, with the hope of garnering tons of positive press and Academy Award consideration. Meanwhile, another film that does not have a certain pedigree also may be screened at the same festival. However, because of its lack of star power or the fact that its dialogue is in most any language but English, this film will languish on the festival circuit for quite a while in the hope of attracting audiences and earning a U.S. theatrical distributor, let alone winning an Oscar nod.

But what of the quality of both films? For after all, the film with the high pedigree may be disappointing while the film with no pedigree may be impressive, and perhaps even haunting.

In the former category is OUR BRAND IS CRISIS, a fictionalized version of the acclaimed 1995 documentary of the same name; it played the Toronto Film Festival in September, and has just been released theatrically. The star of OUR BRAND IS CRISIS is Sandra Bullock, who in recent years has been playing serious roles in serious-minded films and coming away with Oscar glory. Its co-producer is George Clooney, a man of impeccable taste: a caring and committed individual who would get my vote if he ever chose to run for political office. And its subject certainly is germane. OUR BRAND IS CRISIS involves the manner in which paid political consultants market candidates as if they are cars or mattresses or bathroom tissue.

But the result is not what its creators were expecting. OUR BRAND IS CRISIS is a dud. Too often, it seems not so much a provocative look at the marketing of politicians as little more than a star vehicle for Bullock, with the purpose being to showcase her acting chops and win her one more Oscar nod.

OUR BRAND IS CRISIS may be contrasted to the no-name film, the foreign language film with no stars. Its title is THEEB, and it is a quietly powerful allegory with a moral: Be careful who you trust. Know the truth, and do not stray far from the truth.

THEEB also was screened in Toronto, but in 2014: over one year ago. At that time, it also played the Venice Film Festival and, in the year since, it has been screened at more than two dozen festivals across the globe from Abu Dhabi, Belgrade, and Hong Kong to Palm Springs, Seattle, and Singapore. At these fests, it has won a host of awards and nominations in a range of categories, and is finally making its theatrical bow here in the U.S.

THEEB is set around the time of the First World War. It is the name of the title character: a young Bedouin whose father is the sheik of a desert tribe. He is looked after by Hussain, his older brother, and the scenario charts what happens when Theeb follows his sibling into the desert, where he has been hired to lead a British officer to a well that is housing a hidden treasure.

At its core, THEEB is a portrait of survival in a world that is inherently violent, a world inhabited by mysterious forces who are greedy and cruel, a world in which the strong eat the weak without remorse. Some of what happens onscreen may be a mystery to the viewer, but there is a purpose here. The story is told from Theeb’s point of view and the unfolding events are a mystery to this frisky, determined little boy who still does not understand the world around him. But little by little, Theeb becomes irrevocably enmeshed in this world, leading to a finale that is powerful, profound-- and far more potent than any part of OUR BRAND IS CRISIS.

Rob Edelman has written several books on film, television, and baseball, and was a longtime Contributing Editor of Leonard Maltin’s annual Movie Guide. He teaches film history at the University at Albany.

 The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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