What it's about:
The true story of how Mohammed Assaf, a Palestinian wedding singer, escaped his difficult life in Gaza by fulfilling his life long dream of competing in and winning Arab Idol – the Arabian version of the popular singing competition.
What we thought:
It's hard not to get embroiled in the politics of the region when talking about any film set in Gaza – or obviously, Israel, Iran or Syria – but because the latest film by acclaimed flmmaker, Hany Abu-Asad (Paradise Now, Omar) largely goes out of its way not to politicise the undeniably horrible conditions of life in Gaza, I will try and do the same in this review.
The Idol tells a fairly familiar but perhaps no less extraordinary story of someone overcoming their circumstances and all the pain, danger and limitations that such circumstances entail by triumphing on a highly popular, competitive TV show. We saw it a few years back in Slumdog Millionaire and again, though obviously less arduously, in One Chance, but, really, this is the sort of story that these kinds of shows themselves tend to thrive on.
The question, then, is whether or not The Idol is able to rise to the top of its own whirlpool of competition. The answer, frustratingly, is only kind of.
There is, undeniably plenty to like here, from the spirited performances to the intriguing look at a situation that is seldom seen through such a humble, defiantly human lens but, for all that The Idol gets right, it gets just as much wrong.
First, if you're insistent on your biographical films being true to life, The Idol does seem to play very fast and loose with the facts. Apparently, this is especially true of the first – and, frankly, superior – half of the film that focuses especially on young Mohammed and his relationship with his sparky, livewire of a sister. The real Mohammed apparently had a quite different – and actually more complicated – upbringing and I'm not entirely clear whether this sister actually existed.
And, speaking of his maybe fictional sister, she is such a wonderfully enjoyable character, played so beautifully by young Hiba Attalah, that when the film shifts its focus squarely to Mohammed (played by Hiba's brother, Kais, and then by Tawfeek Barhom), there's a definite sense that the film lost, at the very least, much of its colour.
Indeed, the entire second half of the film that actually focuses on Mohammed and his rise to fame doesn't come close to the less outwardly dramatic but much more satisfying first half. The problem, really, is that though Abu-Assad is excellent at both quiet character moments and at depicting a war-torn life of poverty, he loses his way at portraying both the stirring triumph that is supposed to be at the heart of the film's denouement and in capturing just exactly why Mohammed is such a big deal as a “voice of the Gaza people”.
Perhaps I was just thrown by the actual nickname given to him by the competition's judges, “the Gazan Rocket”, which strikes me as being particularly tasteless, regardless of which side you fall on the matter, politically, but the entire act landed with a bit of a thud when it really needed to be the film's soaring climax.
Still, for all of its flaws and for all that it offers nearly no real insight into the complex Israeli-Palestinian situation beyond putting another human face on it (which is nothing to scoff at, to be sure, but is hardly unique to anyone paying attention to what's going on on that side of the world), but there's certainly enough here to make The Idol worth seeing – most especially in its largely terrific first half.
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