In 2013, Mohammed Assaf made history as a Palestinian from Gaza who won coveted first place on Cairo’s “Arab Idol,” a televised talent show based on the popular American series. Assaf’s unlikely journey from refugee camp to the hearts and hopes of an entire region is chronicled in “The Idol,” Hany Abu-Assad’s sweet-natured, if slightly patronizing, dramatization that plays up the story’s melodrama, which included life-changing tragedies, thwarted desires and a series of obstacles.
“The Idol” begins when Mohammed is a 10-year-old boy, running, biking and forming an ad-hoc musical band with his beloved sister Nour. As portrayed by Qais Atallah and Hiba Atallah — who are not related — Mohammed and Nour personify the kind of devotion and psychic connection unique to joined-at-the-hip siblings. When difficulties hit the Assaf family, Mohammed doesn’t hesitate to offer himself — and his ambitions to sing on “Arab Idol” and escape Gaza’s grip — to help save the day. Much later, Mohammed (who is now a college student and taxi driver) revives his once-buried wish, using every connection he can to wrangle a visa to Egypt and, once there, to sneak inside the audition despite not having a ticket.
Portrayed as an adult by Tawfeek Barhom (who looks like the Palestinian version of Adam Driver, and isn’t nearly as movie-star handsome as the man he’s playing), Mohammed makes a natural protagonist to root for, especially when he sings. Wisely, Abu-Assad — best known for his 2005 political satire “Paradise Now” — structures “The Idol” like a musical, giving his main character plenty of chances to break into song. (Although it’s unclear whether the filmmaker used Assaf’s actual voice on the soundtrack, some sequences look obviously lip-synched. Whoever is singing in the film possesses a beguiling voice that is both angelic and soaringly commanding.)
In some ways, “The Idol” is two movies. The first, a tender coming-of-age tale, benefits greatly from the presence of Hiba Atallah, who brings spark and pluck to her portrayal of Assaf’s tomboy sister. It’s she who pokes and prods him to claim the ambition that lies just beneath his placid surface, and it’s she who must navigate a sexist culture that frowns on a girl being part of a mostly male wedding band. The second half hews to the conventional star-making machinery, with Abu-Assad ratcheting up the tension to resemble a musical version of “Slumdog Millionaire.”
Throughout the film, enough stumbling blocks are thrown in Assaf’s way that viewers might expect a landlord to show up twirling his mustache and yelling, “You must pay the rent.” If those structural devices feel a bit hoary, Abu-Assad thankfully never turns “The Idol” into a political polemic or an anti-Israel rant.
Rather, he gives the audience a sense of striving, day-to-day life in Gaza, where kids make a living delivering meals from “WacDonald’s” in Egypt through the region’s underground tunnels, and where kids practice parkour on the wreckage of a ruined world. When Assaf makes his final claim to fame and freedom, “The Idol” has more than earned its preordained climax, celebrating a gifted artist and offering an exhilarating, refreshingly human portrait of a place many viewers know only as a war zone and source of heartbreaking statistics. Like its protagonist, “The Idol” finds a sense of identity, hope and pride within a landscape of grim dispossession and fatalism.
Unrated. At Angelika Film Center Mosaic and Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market. Contains nothing objectionable. In Arabic with subtitles. 95 minutes.