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Entries in Idol/The [2015] (1)

Friday
Jun102016

The Idol (2015)

This is the Voice

I won't pretend to be well-versed in Israeli/Palestinian politics, or to even know enough to support one side over the other. But I know great art when I see it, and Hany Abu-Assad's latest film, The Idol, definitely qualifies. The drama about an aspiring young Palestinian singer, who would grow up to win the Arab Idol competition in 2012, is a moving, sometimes corny, always emotionally honest look at art as a mechanism for spiritual and societal healing.

The film opens in 2005 and finds brother/sister musicians Mohammed (Qais Atallah) and Nour (Hiba Atallah) struggling to upgrade their neighborhood band's homemade instruments. At every turn, they're set back by unscrupulous adults: one tries to steal a fish from their makeshift beach market, another makes off with their meager savings and threatens violence if they try to collect. As hopelessness takes hold, the kids receive encouragement from a local music teacher, and begin performing paid wedding gigs (which brings its own complications, since Nour must disguise the fact that she's a girl in order to perform in public). 

The first third of The Idol is a scrappy, feel-good sibling story that doesn't treat smart, talented kids as precious objects. Mohammed and Nour are real, cool kids who've built a rock-star world with their big dreams and the kind of optimistic self-assuredness that shines so bright before adulthood. Unfortunately for them, the real world disrupts these grand plans and, no knowing anything about Mohammed Assaf's story before seeing the film, I was utterly sucker-punched by what happened.

I leave this mystery for you to discover. Just know that Act Two rockets us seven years into the future, which finds Gaza and its inhabitants markedly different than how we left them. Mohammed is now a college student and a cab driver, and his fares take him through the bombed-out remnants of a once thriving city. The band broke up long ago, and Mohammed's former friend, Omar (Ahmad Rokh), became a military man and religious fanatic after Nour rejected him romantically.

Mohammed eventually finds the strength to rekindle his passion for singing, and devises a plan to sneak in to Egypt for the Arab Idol auditions. It's here, in this last third, that The Idol loses a bit of steam. In an interview with Abu-Assad, the director told me that the events as, depicted by him and writer Sameh Zoabi, are mostly true--which makes what happens to Mohammed as close to a real-life fairy tale as I've ever seen. Mohammed gets into Egypt; gains a spot in the closed-off audition line when another would-be contestant gives up his spot; and (as you know from either history or the opening of this review)--takes the top prize.

I doubt I'll have the same issue with the last leg of The Idol on second viewing, now that I know how it all pans out. Thematically, the upbeat ending is a great pay-off to the hardship and cosmic cruelty that darken the rest of the film. I just wish some of that conflict had made its way into the end. I should count myself lucky, I guess, that Abu-Assad spared us the episodic auditions and gaudy pageantry. Buoying this last section is a soulful performance by Tawfeek Barhom, who plays the adult Mohammed as a man who wants nothing more than to move on from a childhood that was stolen from him. When he sings, even though it's only for a reality-TV contest, his voice transcends music and becomes the sound of freedom.

In pop culture, dreams are cheap. It seems every hayseed who grew up singing to themselves in the mirror thinks they deserve to be Kelly Clarkson, simply because they had the "courage" to answer an open casting call. It's easy to dismiss these shows because they are ubiquitous and generally awful. But The Idol presents us with the big idea that sometimes mass-audience entertainment can bring people together; can help people make their dreams come true; can elevate genuine talent beyond obscurity. Beyond the ratings, the catfights, the cults of personality, there are real people fighting every day to become more than their circumstances, and The Idol reminds us of the beauty that is sometimes buried under our justifiable skepticism.