A hodgepodge of plot points fail to gel in satisfying fashion in “Eyes of a Thief,” Palestinian helmer-writer Najwa Najjar’s follow-up to her acclaimed feature debut, “Pomegranates and Myrrh.” Sadly, this life-under-Occupation drama lacks the compelling characters and unity of tone that made the earlier film a standout, its balance and credibility further undermined by the celebrity casting of Egyptian thesp Khaled Abol Naga and Algerian thrush Souad Massi in leading roles. Nevertheless, Najjar’s reputation and the selection of the pic as Palestine’s foreign-language Oscar entry will lend it some traction on the festival circuit.
The main plot strand, set around 2012, centers on a man with a dark secret, hunky West Bank water engineer Tareq (Naga), whose accent is such that the other characters are constantly telling him, “You’re not from around here.” His backstory gradually unfolds through a series of poorly integrated flashbacks to 2002, when the Palestinian Territories experienced one of the tightest sieges ever. During that time, we see Tareq returning from a job in Nablus to find his village surrounded by Israeli soldiers, who shoot him when he makes a run for it to find his wife and daughter. Bandaged by local nuns and the priest, he tries to head home once again, but is soon arrested.
Released from jail after a 10-year prison stint, he goes in search of his family, only to learn that his wife was killed and his daughter taken to an orphanage. Tareq’s search for the girl leads him back to Nablus, where he’s hired by scheming developer Adel (Suheil Haddad), who fancies himself the local headman. Adel gives Tareq a place to stay at the seamstress shop operated by his reluctant fiancee, the half-Algerian, half-Palestinian Lila (Massi, who created three original songs for the film). Lila just happens to be guardian to a feisty young girl named Malak (Malak Ermili), who is not only the same age as Tareq’s daughter would be, but also bears a distinct resemblance to him (something apparently not noticed by anyone but Lila).
When he is not laying pipe for Adel, Tareq spends a lot of time with Malak, who has a tendency to fly off the handle and a talent for petty theft. In order to get her to straighten out and fly right, Tareq promises to teach her how to play billiards so she can enter a competition, one that never comes to fruition. These sentimentally played scenes seem to come from a different film entirely. Meanwhile, Tareq begins to have suspicions about the work Adel wants him to do, while Adel begins to have suspicions about Tareq’s interest in Lila and her family. The not-especially-tense race to find out who will reveal what about whom first plays out in a ludicrous finale staged like a Western.
Per press notes, Najjar wanted to make a point about what happens on the ground in the Palestinian Territories as the occupation continues, hope diminishes and apathy increases. But this element of her screenplay seems to have received short shrift during the long pre-production process and trips through many international writers’ labs. On the technical front, the bland lensing by Tobias Datum (“Amreeka”) fails to lend the film much sense of place; his camera focuses more on the characters’ faces, a strategy that might have paid off more if they were more fully developed. More evocative than the lensing is the sound work, which, in the opening moments, evokes the terror of being fired upon under cover of darkness. The string-and keyboard-score by Tamer Karawan is a tad over-insistent.