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Film review: The Idol – rise of Palestinian pop star Mohammad Assaf reconstructed in life-affirming biopic

Assaf’s journey from the Gaza Strip to international singing star could have been the stuff of cliché, but Oscar-nominated director Hany Abu-Assad transcends the shackles of convention for a truly euphoric climax

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2016, 7:01pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2016, 7:01pm

3.5/5 stars

Cinema offers up so many heartwarming rags to riches stories, of ordinary people overcoming the odds to excel at their one true passion, that when presented with a staggering true account of just such an accomplishment, it can easily feel conventional and cliched.

Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad (twice Oscar-nominated, for Omar and Paradise Now) strikes a perfect balance in The Idol between capturing the harrowing realism of life in the Gaza Strip and the true underdog story of Mohammad Assaf, a lowly wedding singer who won 2013’s Arab Idol singing competition.

As children, Mohammad (Kais Attallah) and his sister Nour (Hiba Attallah) look to escape the horrors of growing up in the bombed-out slums of Gaza by capitalising on Mohammad’s beautiful singing voice. Particularly in this early section, The Idol has a playful vibe similar to John Carney’s Sing Street , as the kids cobble together a band and perform at weddings.

Tragic events look to scupper Mohammad’s bid for stardom, only to be rekindled years later when the disillusioned young man reconnects with an old friend, now potential love interest (Dima Awawdeh). Mohammad sets his sights on the Arab Idol TV show, but with auditions being held in Cairo, Mohammad must risk his life to get there.

There is no denying the power of Abu-Assad’s euphoric climax, as the traditional Islamic music performed by Assaf resonates with a historical beauty that stirs not only the judges but an entire nation. The choice to intercut reconstructions starring Tawfeek Barhom (as the older Mohammad) with real footage from the 2013 show only further enhance the experience, resulting in a victory that transcends its formulaic shackles in powerful, life-affirming fashion.

The idol opens on December 8

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