The Idol movie review: A poignant tale of loss, perseverance and goodwill
The Idol feels like two films — a coming-of-age drama and an underdog story — rolled into one
Like Slumdog Millionaire before it, Palestinian film The Idol relies on the familiar underdog template to weave a poignant story. Less cinematic than the other, it is all the better for it. Its style doesn't come at the expense of dramatic depth. Based on the life of Mohammed Assaf, an Arab Idol winner who went on to become a celebrated musician, The Idol stands apart from other textbook biopics because of its grounded approach. It feels like two films — a coming-of-age drama and an underdog story — rolled into one.
Director: Hany Abu-Assad
Cast: Tawfeek Barhom, Kais Attalah, Nadine Labaki
Premiering on: & Privé HD
The childhood portions of the film deliver the maximum impact. Though Assaf is the protagonist, it is his sister who takes centre stage in the early segments. Often mistaken for a boy, Nour is the driving force and key motivator for Assaf and their DIY mobile band that performs at weddings. The kids in the film behave like grown-ups, but not in the unnatural manner we see in Indian movies. Interestingly, it's Nour who pushes the boys to improve themselves instead of the other way around. At one point, she gets into an argument with a smuggler who stiffs them. It's an amusing sight but convincing at the same time.
Since the film happens in Israeli-occupied Gaza, it takes some time to give us a glimpse of the conflict-ravaged place, which looks like something out of a dystopian story. We see people working at a knockoff burger joint — one employee talks about delivering food via tunnels to Egypt. For these kids, music is not only their passion but also a means to get away from their hopeless surroundings.
The Idol takes an unexpected course when Assaf loses a dear family member. However, the film isn't one to wallow in grief. It quickly moves on, just like its main characters, and cuts to the present where Assaf is a student paying for his tuition from the money he earns as a taxi driver. Throughout the film, we get the sense that he has been constantly using his loss to drive himself forward.
The dream he had to give up on account of his irreparable loss is revived when he gets an opportunity to sing on a local version of Idol. They go for a DIY setting again, as they did as kids. For us, this may be the film's funniest moment, but for Assaf, it's a greatly infuriating situation. The visual is something that would fit well in a post-pandemic world: Assaf performing through Skype, with a weak internet connection powered by a faulty generator, while judges watch from the other end of the screen. The urge to give up hits him once more. But he manages to find inspiration again, this time in the form of a woman.
Among the many things I loved about The Idol is how it champions those who take the unconventional route to get their foot in the door. I also loved its beautiful sense of community, which I last saw in the Tamil film Soorarai Pottru. Like that film, there are moments in The Idol where the protagonist's detractors turn his allies. There is so much goodness in the film and, yet, it is never forceful with this intent. We see friendships breaking and getting repaired again. There is no envy among friends. Everyone wants to see each other succeed. We see not just one man's entire community rooting for him but also the whole of the Arab world. Though the film doesn't show Assaf's life after turning into a celebrity, it manages to talk about using one's art as a tool to further a just cause and, in the process, inspire many others, regardless of their backgrounds.