2016, NR, 97 min. Directed by Hany Abu-Assad. Starring Tawfeek Barhom, Qais Atallah, Hiba Atallah, Ahmed Qassim, Abd-Elkarim Abu-Barakeh, Dima Awawdeh, Ahmed Al-Rokh, Saber Shreim, Nadine Labaki.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 27, 2016
Mohammad Assaf, the Palestinian winner of the second season of Arab Idol, is here treated to a biopic that cements the young man’s international and inspirational status. Assaf’s 2013 win became a symbolic moment celebrated by the entire Palestinian and Arab world, and afterward, the singer was named a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations. Assaf, who was raised in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, has become an emblematic figure whose life story (which amounts to two decades and some spare change) is the subject of the latest film by one of Palestine’s foremost filmmakers, the award-winning Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now, Omar).
The first half of The Idol is devoted to Assaf’s childhood in the Gaza Strip, where he (Qais Atallah) and his sister Nour (Hiba Atallah) run parkour-style through the streets and concrete wreckage, while also trying to get a band going with their friends. The plucky children become good enough musically to play weddings and such, despite their broken-down instruments and lack of finesse. They try to obtain new instruments from the local smuggler, and sell fish to passersby to finance their endeavors. All the while, they dream of big success, mostly fueled by tomboy Nour, who is so engaging that you almost wish the movie was about her instead of her brother. Filmed in Gaza, this section of the film offers a fascinating glimpse of the blitzed buildings and derelict ruins that provide the day-to-day surroundings of the children and other Palestinians living there. It’s no wonder that both children dream of escaping its borders and playing at the Cairo Opera House.
After a great personal tragedy befalls young Assaf, The Idol advances 10 years or so to find him now a young man (Barhom) who is driving a taxicab and attending college, but is depressed by his dead-end prospects in Gaza. The remainder of the film recounts his improbable but true tale of slipping into Egypt with a forged visa and then, after arriving too late to score a chance at an audition, scaling the building the way he and Nour did as children in order to get past the lines outside. Even more improbably, once inside, another auditioner hears him singing and selflessly gives Assaf his own ticket to the tryouts. The Idol speeds through the many weeks of competition, and focuses most of its attention on the rapturous reactions of the judges and viewers around the region. Since the real Mohammad Assaf turns up toward the end of the film, one has to wonder why he didn’t play the role himself. Often impeded by ham-fisted, inspirational dialogue, The Idol is not likely to earn Assaf more worldwide admirers, but for those who are already in his fan club, this film will be received like a bonus gift.