The young actress Hiba Attalah has wide, bright eyes that might be described as “beseeching,” except that her character in The Idol, 12-year-old Nour Assaf, never asks, much less begs, for anything—she demands it. Hawking fresh-caught fish to pay for her band’s new instruments, or carrying a valise alongside her green-striped school uniform as she confronts a treacherous smuggler, Nour is fearless, and whenever Attalah is on screen, so is Hany Abu-Assad’s inspirational biopic. Even Nour’s platitudes (“We’ll be big and we’ll change the world!”) ring with the conviction that each cliché contains a germ of truth: As she and her brother, Mohammed (Kais Attalah), chant the phrase in their childhood home, the film cuts to their window, their block, their neighborhood, with the whole of Gaza beyond, but the orange light in their bedroom remains visible, a hopeful pinprick in the dark.
The Idol isn’t Nour’s story, however, and when the girl succumbs to kidney failure at the end of the first act, the film relinquishes its own enterprising spirit, segueing into familiar territory—a Slumdog Millionaire of the Middle East, or A Star Is Born by the Mediterranean. In adapting the true-life tale of Mohammed Assaf (played in his adult years by Tawfeek Barhom), a wedding singer from Gaza who competed on the talent show Arab Idol in 2013, Abu-Assad leans heavily on the rhythms of reality TV, in which hardship is the prelude to success, to shape the narrative, yet he treats Mohammed’s triumph as a fait accompli. Speeding through the singer’s stint on Arab Idol with a montage of archival footage, the judges lavishing Mohammed with praise, the film lets the air out of his improbable rise: With no hiccups or stumbles to speak of, no patience for the ups and downs of performance, The Idol constructs no tension. It’s as if Abu-Assad is only feigning interest in the competition itself, and the result is a deflating anticlimax.
The film’s strength, in fact, is its willingness to test the truth content of the subgenre’s commonplaces—that music is the universal language, that art, on its own, is capable of changing the world. It’s not that The Idol comes down against these notions, exactly, so much that it questions the ease with which such assertions are made; the camera’s aforementioned retreat from Nour and Mohammed’s window clings to her optimism, for instance, but it also offers a reminder that the world is much bigger than they are.
It’s here, arranging the architecture of the Israeli-imposed apartheid and the aspirations of individual Palestinians into a fractured, humane whole, that Abu-Assad’s visual acumen is on fullest display. In one terrifically witty sequence, the siblings’ band, with a faux microphone and a makeshift drum set, strikes up for a small crowd of their pint-sized contemporaries, swaying and smiling like patrons at Lollapalooza, only to be interrupted by an older woman, one with the experience to know that change may not be around the next corner. “People are dying,” she says, pouring a bucket of water on their heads, “and you’re singing?”
As the camera capers through Gaza in the opening sequence, or follows Nour, Mohammed, and their friends, bicycling along the border fence, The Idol offers a scintillating, if all-too-brief, glimpse of life there that resists reducing Palestine and the Palestinians to mere symbols in a regional struggle; later, as the adult Mohammed spies men practicing parkour atop the rubble of a bombed-out building, their acrobatics suggest an unwillingness to be bound by circumstance, even after seven more years of destruction and despair.
The problem is that Mohammed’s run on Arab Idol, leaving behind Abu-Assad’s precise sense of Gaza as a place that exists independent of the political imagination, becomes pure metaphor, the particulars of his experience whittled down into the sort of pre-recorded package that might be played before we hear the winner’s name. “The world expects more from this voice than it can give,” Mohammed says near film’s end, attempting to underline the point, but unlike Nour, The Idol’s clichés ultimately contain both too little conviction and too little complication, their inspirational messages more imagined than real.