Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed May 25, 2016 9:33 pm 
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Feel-good in a context of urban oppression

The Idol is a bit more than a feel-good musical biopic. It comes drenched in political meaning, given that its subject, Muhammad Assaf, the Gazan singer who won “Arab Idol” at age 23, simultaneously became a symbol of positivity and hope for the beleaguered Palestinians in the occupied territories, subsequently a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador and an Arab cultural icon. The film is a complete turnabout for the gifted Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad, whose two powerful previous films, Paradise Now (2005) and Omar (2013), plunge the viewer deep into political thriller territory. The Idol is heartbreaking, touching, and marked by intense shifts. It lacks the easy satisfactions of conventional musical biopics, but it is original and powerful in its simplicity and authentic feeling.

Abu-Assad's two previous films blend a blunt intensity with propulsive and suspenseful action and The Idol has that too. Little Muhammad Assaf (Qais Atallah) ) is a boy with the voice of an angel who seems born with a sense of the elaborate, gripping improvisations of Arab song. He gathers a little group of child musicians around him, including his sister Nour (Hiba Atallah), a skillful guitarist, who believes in him and is his inspiration and makes him repeat the words, "We will grow up and we will change the world" over and over. But they live in Gaza, and From the start the film shows us Gaza is a heartbreaking, ravaged place.

The kids are adorable, sweet, and pure-looking, nothing like the rough-and-ready street kids we might expect in a territory that's largely ruble from repeated Israeli bombings. But they run and run, in one sequence so extended early on that it immediately reminded me of the tour-de-force opening of Olivier Megaton's Colombiana, the slick grindhouse entertainment that made Zoe Saldana a Latina superstar. Later the grown-up Muhammad will see young Gazans performing a challenging local form of parcour, leaping between ruble and ruined buildings. And these are harbingers, because the climax of this film builds on a physical thriller, when the protagonist must cross borders, dive past guards, and disappear in the bowels of a fancy hotel to get to the first stage of the "Arab Idol" contest that will make him famous. He can't get a real visa, and he can't even get a ticket to enter the auditions. Abu-Assad makes winning a singing contest like guerrilla warfare.

But before we get there the first half ends with a tragedy. Nour is diagnosed with kidney failure and her family haven't the money for a transplant and Muhammad can't donate one, because he's got the wrong blood type. His sister, despite her spunkiness and humor, gradually fades as dialysis can't keep up. The film stops here, and leaps forward ten years,

Muhammad has despaired and almost lost his dream, working at menial jobs like driving a cab. There is little resemblance between young Muhammad and his young adult replacement, a scrawny, ravaged-looking, though beautiful Tawfeek Barhom, the touching actor of A Borrowed Identity (who unlike Qais Atallah does not, I assume, do his own singing). But there is a logic in this, because Gaza is a world that rapidly takes its toll (the real Muhammad Assaf, though, is relatively robust and handsome). What's unique about this film is its visceral sense of its star-in-the-making physically escaping from one world into another - over the desert border, then to Cairo (the familiar images of its old downtown squares and Opera vividly shown), and later on to Beirut and a glitzy hall and glittering modern concert hall that sparkles electronically. If, as Justin Chang says in his positive review for Variety, "the story’s elisions and fabrications occasionally feel too tidy," it's true as he also says that the charming and touching young cast make up for it - and so does the director's command of physical action and suspense. At the end the real Muhammad Assaf briefly appears and sings, yet another transformation, and a triumph. Abu-Assad has made a far less stark and more crowdpleasing film this time that indeed deserves an audience beyond the Arab fan base. But what's remarkable is that after one has watched this story of musical triumph, the images of the wrecked and wounded urban spaces of Gaza are more vivid than from the earlier films.

The Idol/يا طير الطاير (Ya Tayr El Tayer), 100 mins., debuted at Toronto and showed at half a dozen other festivals including London and Hong Kong. It opened NYC 6 May 2016; wider US release begins 27 May. Showing at Angelika Film Center in New York and at Landmark's Opera Plaza and Shattuck in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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