Neighboring Arabian Sultans Emil (Antonio Banderas; Ruby Sparks) and Amar (Mark Strong; Zero Dark Thirty) have been fighting wars against each other for years. Both men are proud and want to possess the land between their two small kingdoms (called “The Yellow Belt”). The two men have been at peace for nearly 20 years, since Emil agreed to adopt Amar’s two young sons and raise them as his own. Things become complicated when an American oil tycoon (Corey Johnson) discovers oil in The Yellow Belt and Emil begins to become very rich. Desperate to keep peace, Emil sends Amar’s younger son Auda (Tahar Rahim) to renegotiate the truce between the two men.
There is a distinct inevitability to this film, which works nicely. The impending conflict and bloodshed between these two “armies” can’t be avoided. The really interesting thing about the inevitable war is how Auda’s character arc plays out. We spend most of the first chunk of the film centered on the Emil character, and as a result we get a very negative image of Amar as ruthless. When Auda goes to him however, the audience is able to see that while he is a traditionalist who adheres to an arguably out-dated set of religious principles, he is a good man. Auda represents the audience, and when his loyalties sway to the man who has been established as the villain of the film, the audience seems all too willing to go along for the ride.
The action movie elements of this are very well executed. Each side’s force is small, so we’re not talking about the siege on Troy, but the film holds its own with what it has to work with. Also, the setting of the film in the middle of the desert causes an actual heat to emanate off the screen. Watching a man dressed head to toe in robes with his head wrapped in a scarf run across a desert to battle a tank is exhausting.
A lot of the performances here are great. Banderas and Strong are consistently very good in whatever roles they undertake and they strive to embody these two men without any sense of archetype or stereotype. Actually, at a thematic level, it’s interesting how these Arabs represent ideas and characteristics that the average person may associate with the right and left wings of American politics. On one side, we have Emil, who is open minded to change and capitalism, while his antithesis, Amar, retains a firm hold his more conservative ways.
I like Tahar Rahim’s portrayal of Auda, and his relationship with Emil’s daughter Leyla (Freida Pinto; Slumdog Millionaire), but my interest in the character doesn’t take off until he leaves Emil’s palace to interact with Amar and grow to lead a faction of Amar’s army.
Overall, it’s a strong film powered by a good story and good acting. This probably won’t come across your radar unless you’re looking for it, but I would say it’s worth your time to check out.
Special features include three behind the scenes featurettes on the movie overall and the production design. Available now on DVD and Blu-ray from Image Entertainment. The film is also currently streaming on Netflix Instant Watching.