Earlier this year, “Sing Street” chronicled the inspiring pursuit of musical glory by a kid from a disadvantaged background. Nothing against John Carney’s charming semi-autobiographical fable, but as far as barriers to success and happiness, 1980s Dublin ain’t got nothin’ on the Gaza Strip.
“The Idol” is also a fictionalized take on a true story, that of Mohammad Assaf, a Palestinian who emerged from the isolation and poverty of Gaza to win the top prize on “Arab Idol” in 2013 and became a hero to his nation. (Yes, there is an “Arab Idol,” which proves that people the world over, despite differences in race, creed, or culture, are all merely slaves to Simon Cowell’s evil genius.)
The movie begins in 2005, as young Mohammad (Qais Atallah) forms a band with his spunky sister Nour (Hiba Atallah) and his best pal Omar (Abd-Elkarim Abu-Barakeh). Omar decides that music is the devil’s tool, and Nour develops a serious kidney illness, so their musical dreams are put on hold.
Seven years later, Mohammed (now played by Tawfeek Barhom) is driving a cab and singing at weddings to support himself, surrounded by rubble and, like most Gazans, forbidden to cross the territory’s borders. He decides to audition for “Palestinian Idol,” but he’s forced to do so via Skype because he’s not allowed to travel across Israel to Ramallah, and his experience demonstrates that frustration with spotty Internet connections is universal.
Getting to Cairo for the “Arab Idol” tryouts is even more problematic, but with grit, luck, and help from friends and strangers alike, Mohammed might just have a chance. Who am I kidding–he’s got more than a chance, he ends up winning the whole thing! Once he manages to sneak across the border into Egypt, the movie loses a little narrative steam, to be honest, though even some of the unlikelier twists of fate are drawn from Mohammed’s actual experiences.
It also doesn’t help that, as I complained recently about another film, “Viva,” the lyrics that Mohammed sings aren’t subtitled. In real life, his winning performance was apparently a stirring nationalist anthem, but for all we know watching the movie, he’s doing an Arabic-language version of “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.”
Still, “The Idol” manages to tell an uplifting, proudly Palestinian tale that touches on the region’s volatile politics while pleasing crowds. Director Hany Abu-Assad is responsible for the only two Palestinian nominees for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, 2005’s “Paradise Now” and 2013’s “Omar.” Both of those were more hard-hitting stories, but it wouldn’t be a total shock to see his latest effort join their ranks.
(95 minutes, not rated, opens Friday, June 10, at Living Room Theaters) GRADE: B