Review: The Gaza Strip-set ‘The Idol’ is uneven but charmingly earnest

There’s an irresistible pull to the story of Mohammed Assaf, the Palestinian wedding singer who made his way from a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip to the TV screens of tens of millions of fans. The same can be said of “The Idol,” an uneven but charmingly earnest fictionalized account of Assaf’s rise through the ranks of hopefuls on the reality contest “Arab Idol.”

Among those rooting for the instantly symbolic performer was the filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad, whose previous dramas about life in the occupied territories — the Oscar-nominated “Paradise Now” and “Omar” — took the form of wrought, provocative thrillers. For Assaf’s undeniably romantic tale of triumph, director Abu-Assad and his co-writer, Sameh Zoabi, divide the story between two time frames, Assaf’s childhood in Gaza and the point in his young adulthood when he determines to leave.

The film’s first 40 minutes, focusing on the young, golden-voiced Assaf, his sister and two best friends, has the classic sheen of cinema about kids being resourceful in hardscrabble circumstances. One of the ways the wannabe musicians earn money for instruments is by delivering fast food to Egypt through the smuggling tunnels.

Qais Atallah plays Assaf as a boy, and he resembles the real deal more than the actor who has the role in the movie’s second half. He conveys sweetness and resilience with ease. But the early sequences, and in many ways the entire film, belong to the spirited Hiba Atallah as Assaf’s sister, Nour. If a star is born in this story of against-the-odds stardom, it would be her.

Lighting up the screen with her bright gaze and take-charge attitude, she makes Nour a dynamo. The mini-impresario puts together a band to showcase her brother’s talent and will stop at nothing to get him the recognition she knows he deserves. The medical crisis that slows her down only deepens the sibling bond, and that bond is the drama’s key driving force.


Tawfeek Barhom is a compelling presence as the college-age singer, though he’s called on to lip-sync, a distraction that gives way to a disorienting jolt with the director’s last-minute switch to footage of Assaf himself in the contest’s climactic moment. But how the taxi-driving young man gets to glittering, cosmopolitan Cairo from the rubble of Gaza plays out as an involving combination of fairy tale and political reality. His journey involves the support of lifelong friends as well as a mentor, a sympathetic border guard and the black marketer (Ashraf Barhom) who showed Assaf and his bandmates no mercy when they came to him as kids.

The rare feature to be shot on location in Gaza, “The Idol” offers implicit commentary on everyday deprivations and work-arounds. Yet the screenplay stumbles when it plants self-conscious observations in the mouths of characters of all ages. “We may be surrounded by ugliness,” a friend of Assaf’s needlessly announces, “but your voice is so beautiful.”

By contrast, Abu-Assad’s assured visual language is never so awkward, and seldom so obvious. In both halves of the story he uses bold bursts of parkour, a potent physical poetry of possibility and escape. And he places Assaf near the coastline, first looking across the Mediterranean to a seemingly impossible life and then, under the pressure of media attention and public expectation, looking back to the other side.


‘The Idol’

In Arabic with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; Laemmle Ahrya Fine Arts, Beverly Hills; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Edwards’ Westpark 8, Irvine