OTTAWA’S CINEMA FOR INTERNATIONAL AND INDEPENDENT MOVIES

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The Idol

Ya tayr el tayer

Based on the incredible true story.

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 competed in ;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.

Poster image for The IdolThe 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). 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 borders. Before long, Muhammad, Nour and their band are playing at weddings and other parties. But the exuberance of these scenes gradually gives way to a more sombre, reflective mood as the Assaf family is struck by unexpected tragedy.

In the film’s second half, it’s 2012 and Muhammad is now a teenager (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 seems much more attainable when he learns that auditions are being held in Cairo for the next season of ‘Arab 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.

Working once more with cinematographer Ehab Assal (Omar), Abu-Assadhe films the narrow confines of the Gaza Strip – positioned between miles of barbed-wire fence on one side and 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 focusses on the difficult steps by which he just barely makes it onto the ‘Arab Idol’ stage, propelled forward by the kindness of strangers.

As the weeks of competition are ticked off and the season enters its final rounds, Barhom conveys the crippling weight of the pressure upon Muhammad as he strives to succeed not only for himself but for the many Gazans and Palestinians around the world who have hitched their dreams to his own.

A montage of Assaf’s final performance splices together images of Barhom onstage and clips from the actual show, in an inspiring sequence that seeks to convey how a cheesy pop-cultural phenomenon became 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.

– Justin Chang, Variety
 

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