Whatever Hani Abu-Assad’s The Idol, opening Friday at the North Park, does or doesn’t otherwise achieve, it is distinguished by its unusual generic cross breeding. This biopic mixes what’s intended as an inspiring, heart-tugging story of individual triumph over seemingly insuperable odds with a relatively low-key but unmistakable theme of national liberation.
The nationalist cause The Idol espouses is the Palestinian resistance to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its stringent restrictions on life in the Gaza Strip. Abu-Assad has had only limited success in weaving his two themes into a coherent and compelling movie, but this is neither because his protagonist isn’t (apparently) remarkable nor because the Palestinian plight isn’t critical.
His young hero is Mohammed Assaf (Tawfeek Barhom), a Gaza resident who won season two of the Arab Idol competition in 2013 to rapturous acclaim and impromptu public celebrations across the Middle East. How he got there is the dramatized and presumably altered and heightened story the movie tells.
It opens with four 10- and 11-year-old kids—three boys and a girl—trying to obtain musical instruments so they can form a wedding band, no small goal in impoverished, embargo-restricted Gaza. Assaf (Kais Attalah) and his sister Nour (Hiba Attalah) are the leaders in this very difficult but eventually successful effort. Nour is the group’s most influential member, prodding and sharp-tongued, and when she succumbs to kidney disease, a grieving, forlorn Mohammed tries to carry on with his singing studies, but seven years later, he has all but abandoned his hopes. Then, his dream and aspirations are revived when he becomes reacquainted with a girl he met when she was being treated for the same disease as his sister. He pledges to her he will audition at the Cairo preliminaries to the Arab Idol show in Beirut. His efforts to get there are the stuff of pulp fiction, although there must be some basis in facts for this treatment.
The Idol consistently gives off sincerity vibes, but it is too awkward and halting a vehicle to convey the importance of Assaf’s feats and the human misery they came from. Abu-Assad, who co-wrote it, hasn’t imbued his film with nearly enough narrative insight and information for his purposes. It moves along in fits and starts: New characters disappear before they’re adequately identified and the political context is never appreciably clarified.
The oppressive Israeli control of Gaza’s border is indicated—there’s even a reference to “Israeli aggression”—but there’s nary a mention of Hamas, the radical Islamist party governing Gaza’s people. In one crucial sequence, it’s never made adequately clear why Hamas functionaries should want to prevent Mohammed from reaching Egypt. There are a few poignant scenes, but much of the dialogue is stilted or unpersuasive. In one scene, a panning camera in a car moving along a rubble-lined Gaza City street destroyed by Israeli firepower more vividly suggests the situation than most of the script.
Many Arab-Americans probably will already know something of Assaf’s remarkable saga, and also be familiar with his tradition-based crooning-chanting pop style (voiced by Assaf). They’re an obvious potential audience for this movie, but it’s hard to recommend it to a general audience.