Film Review: The Idol

While Hany Abu-Assad’s fact-based melodrama shows alluring authenticity early on, it wears thin towards the final act, when self-awareness overtakes its sincerity.
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The Idol, from two-time Academy Award-nominated director Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now and Omar), is based on a glorious, fairytale-like true story that instantly screams “a buoyant underdog movie.” In 2013, Mohammed Assaf—a hard-working Palestinian refugee from Gaza with a beautiful, angelic voice—won “Arab Idol” (the Arab version of “American Idol”) and became an icon among his people, providing them an escape from their constrained lives. Co-written by Abu-Assad and Sameh Zoabi and structured in two parts—first charting a slice of Mohammed’s childhood that was marked by tragedy, then following his battle for an opportunity and rise to fame—The Idol beautifully captures Mohammad’s innocent hunger and defiant ambition in its initial act, set against the destroyed streets of Gaza.

Unfortunately, the follow-through—when the celebrated story we’ve been waiting for arrives—cannot maintain that level of sincerity. While The Idol creates authentic allure with Mohammad’s (Qais Atallah and Tawfeek Barhom) and his sister Nour’s (Hiba Attalah) childhood, it unfortunately diminishes with the story’s growing scope and increasingly suffers from self-awareness and a curious lack of believability.

The film opens in Gaza in 2005, following Mohammed, bright and witty Nour and their friends around as they scrape together every penny they can to buy old or makeshift instruments and perform music. Their playground is torn by political conflict, but their spirits are nonetheless high and their belief in themselves is strong. “People are dying and you are singing,” yells a local woman in one memorable scene that underlines this juxtaposition, showing the duality of the kids’ lives. They perform in the streets, sell food on the beach and do everything imaginable to gather up enough shekels for their instruments, but eventually get scammed by a local, dangerous gangster.

These roadblocks prove to be nothing compared to the always upbeat and optimistic Nour’s sudden kidney failure and the periodic dialysis she has to endure. While she says she prefers “cleaning her kidneys to getting married and cleaning her house” (staying true to her boisterous character), the future tragically holds neither for her. With the death of Nour—who has thus far been the loudest defender of their collective grand life aspirations, which include escaping Gaza one day and conquering the world—Mohammed puts his ambitions on hold indefinitely. After a jump to the year 2012, we find Mohammed working as a taxi driver and singing at weddings to make ends meet. Running into his childhood friend Amal (Dima Awawdeh) one day inspires him to continue where he left off. A training montage, an illegal and dangerous trip to Cairo (where “Arab Idol” holds auditions) and claiming a spot in the competition despite being late (thanks to a kind stranger’s generosity) pave the way to his eventual triumph. And the rest is history.

In its second half, The Idol wears thin and enters a territory somewhere between Slumdog Millionaire and The Hundred-Foot Journey in reaching its inevitable Hollywood ending. Sadly, the result is less Slumdog Millionaire’s allure and disarming magnetism and more The Hundred-Foot Journey’s overarching superficiality. Abu-Assad—an undoubtedly gifted storyteller and director—creates wonders with The Idol when he stays close to Nour, Mohammed and Amal and organically captures the humor and drama of their routine and subtle rebellion against their impossible surroundings. As he did with Omar, Abu-Assad expertly immerses one into immediate and urgent moments of discord through high-stakes chase scenes (ranging from a young Mohammed running after a non-paying customer to Mohammed’s 22-year-old self breaking into the “Arab Idol” auditions in Cairo without a ticket) and an observant eye for the cultural and geographical backdrops. Ultimately, The Idol falls prey to self-consciousness, as well as distracting flaws like the obvious lip-synching that almost completely erases the emotional power of Mohammed’s velvety voice and astonishing musical technique. There is plenty to admire in The Idol until Mohammed’s life catches up with his dreams. If only the film could also rise to the occasion.

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