After bringing a grim, laserlike focus to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his Oscar-nominated thrillers “Paradise Now” (2005) and “Omar” (2013), director Hany Abu-Assad makes a welcome foray into more crowdpleasing territory with “The Idol.” A simply told but thoroughly captivating portrait of Muhammad Assaf, the Gazan singer who won “Arab Idol” at age 23 and became an irresistible symbol of hope for Palestinians worldwide, the movie largely benefits from Abu-Assad’s natural talent for building suspense and rhythm; if the story’s elisions and fabrications occasionally feel too tidy, it more than earns its emotional impact on the strength of its excellent young cast. Abu-Assad’s ever-rising profile and Assaf’s enormous popularity (as both a U.N. goodwill ambassador and a cultural icon) should sing a winning commercial tune for a picture that deserves an audience well beyond its natural Arab fanbase.
The first half of “The Idol” is a charming, rambunctious coming-of-age dramedy set in Gaza, a battle-scarred region that nevertheless serves as a landscape of endless adventure for 10-year-old Muhammad (Qais Atallah) and his 12-year-old sister, Nour (Hiba Atallah), who spend most of their time running, playing and trying to start their own band with their friends, Ashraf (Ahmad Qassim) and Omar (Abd-Elkarim Abu-Barakeh). Although Nour and Muhammad bicker and tease each other endlessly, two closer siblings could scarcely be imagined: Nour, a spirited tomboy, encourages Muhammad to make the most of his exceptional singing voice, which she’s convinced is good enough to propel him beyond Gaza’s closely monitored borders. Muhammad himself is developed in ways that emphasize not only his musical talent but also his pluck and persistence, whether he’s chasing down a customer who cheats them at their beachside fish stand, or standing up to an old smuggler (Ashraf Barhoum) who promises to buy them instruments but winds up swindling them instead.
Before long, the four scalawags are playing at weddings and other parties, to the delight and disapproval of many who, like Muhammad’s bewildered if generally supportive parents, are unaccustomed to the sight of children performing in public. But the exuberance of these scenes gradually gives way to a more somber, reflective mood as the Assaf family is struck by unexpected tragedy, and Abu-Assad (who wrote the screenplay with Sameh Zoabi) marks the passage of time in a seamless, haunting transition that emphasizes the toll of daily life in an occupied state, where opportunities for escape or advancement are few and far between. In the film’s second half, it’s 2012 and Muhammad is now a teenager (now played by Tawfeek Barhom), trying to make extra money as a cab driver while still pursuing his dream of a singing career — a dream that suddenly becomes palpable when he learns that auditions are being held in Cairo for the next season of “Arab Idol,” a popular spinoff from “American Idol.”
A master of understated tension and movement, Abu-Assad kicks the drama into high gear as Muhammad determines to obtain a fake visa and make the forbidden crossover into Egypt — a dangerous journey that will require him to maneuver his way nimbly around the system in ways both physical and ideological. To even reach the hotel where auditions are being held, Muhammad must literally do battle with the forces of religious repression in the form of his old friend Omar (Ahmad Rokh), now a strict Muslim soldier who disapproves of Muhammad entering a secular, televised singing competition. It’s a somewhat heavy-handed touch in a story that often seems to be playing fast and loose with the truth in traditional biopic fashion (Assaf has several other siblings, though the only one we see onscreen is Nour), albeit to continually involving and entertaining effect.
Abu-Assad is on surer footing when he simply weaves images of Muhammad’s surroundings into the fabric of the narrative. Working once more with cinematographer Ehab Assal (who also shot “Omar”), he films the narrow confines of the Gaza Strip — positioned between miles of barbed-wire fence on one side and the open sea on the other — in muscular, expansive widescreen compositions that convey the region’s desolation as well as its harsh, rugged beauty. Once Muhammad makes it into Egypt, the film recounts in great detail the difficult steps by which he just barely makes it onto the “Arab Idol” stage, propelled forward by the kindness of strangers, plus a few parkour moves he picked up in Gaza. As the region’s lone representative in the competition, Muhammad would immediately stand out even if he weren’t so distinguished by his voice.
The weeks of competition are ticked off in an efficient sequence that feels at once aptly judged (a movie devoted to the weeks of competition and elimination would feel endless) and a touch anticlimactic, though the script does a fine job of keeping the outcome from feeling like the foregone conclusion that it is. Barhom anxiously conveys the sheer crippling weight of the pressure that falls upon Muhammad as the season enters its final rounds, as he strives to succeed not only because of what it would mean for him personally, but for the many Gazans and other Palestinians around the world who have hitched their dreams to his own.
Habib Shehadeh Hanna’s score gently complements the film’s abundant pop-music elements, and Western viewers familiar with “American Idol” will find a fascinating contrast in the Arab satellite version, and especially in the deep, soulful ululations of those chosen to compete. A montage of Assaf’s final performance splices together images of Barhom onstage and clips from the actual show, plus authentic and faux footage of viewers excitedly huddled around their TV sets. It’s a messy, overreaching but duly inspiring sequence that seeks to reproduce the soaring rapture of Assaf’s victory, and how it momentarily transmuted a cheesy pop-cultural phenomenon into an almost sacred moment of collective triumph — an all-too-rare occasion for an embattled people to gather in a spirit of peace and celebration rather than protest.
Barhom, so good as another Arab youth trying to find his way in Eran Riklis “A Borrowed Identity,” plays Muhammad with a low-key grit and sobriety that sometimes seem a far cry from the real Assaf, with his broad, star-making grin and matinee-idol good looks; but whatever the performance lacks in showmanship it makes up for in emotional depth. (Abu-Assad himself has a cameo as a potential talent backer for the young Muhammad.) Still, attention will rightly center around the four Gazan children making their big-screen debuts here, and Qais Atallah is terrific as the young Assaf, revealing at an early age the courage, sensitivity and raw ability that will drive him to victory. But it’s the delightful Hiba Atallah who leaves the film’s most memorable impression as Nour, her adorable wide eyes projecting intelligence, humor and love for life with nary a hint of mugging; Muhammad may go on to win “Arab Idol,” but it’s his sister who wins your heart.