‘The Other Son’: Who are you?

October 24, 2012

There are a lot of ways Lorraine Levy could have gone with the premise of “The Other Son,” opening in limited release Friday (10/26/12). Thankfully, she took the least-expected one.

A switched-at-birth tale, “The Other Son” raises the stakes on what is already an emotionally charged situation. Levy’s story (of two families who discover that their college-age sons were switched at infancy in the hospital by mistake) is set in Israel. One family is Israeli and lives in the affluent Tel Aviv suburbs; the other is Palestinian and lives behind a wall, with military checkpoints between them and the rest of the city.

The discovery comes about innocently enough: Joseph (Jules Sitruk), the son of an Irsaeli military commander, has taken his physical to join the army. Army service is his duty, but he’s really more interested in college, girls and playing music. But his mother, Orith (Emmanuelle Devos), a doctor, is shocked to discover that Joseph’s army physical shows his blood type is a genetic impossibility – unless he isn’t actually her son.

This leads to an investigation that produces the revelation: On the night that Joseph was born in 1991, terrorists shelled the part of Tel Aviv where the hospital was. The babies – including Joseph, were evacuated to safety – at which point Joseph was swapped unwittingly for Yacine (Mehdi Debhi), the son of a Palestinian mechanic.

Yacine has grown up with the Palestinian struggle in his foreground, though his parents have sent him to Paris to school, to get him away from the violence and discrimination. But he returns for his summer break to discover that, in fact, he is not who he thought he was.

It’s like a slap to Joseph, who considers himself a Jew. He is shocked when the rabbi who performed his bar mitzvah informs him that, no matter how he feels or what he thinks, Jewish law says that, in fact, he is not Jewish.

Yacine, meanwhile, is exposed to an entirely new world: one of freedom and abundance. But he also finds that this change in identity has turned his militant brother against him.

Who are these boys now? And who will they become? How will the seeming political stalemate of regional hatred and enmity shape them in new ways?

To her credit, Levy rarely addresses those ideas directly. Instead, she focuses on the central triangle on each side: mother, father and son. The film is particularly touching in those scenes when the two families get together – or when each mother gets time to be alone with the son she has never known. What does she feel toward this stranger who was once part of her? What does that do to the feelings she has for the baby she reared as her own?

And what does this news mean to the two young men? How do you go on with life when you discover that everything up until now has been, in effect, a lie? Who are they now? Who will they become?

The fathers are the hardest nuts to crack: intractable, macho, prideful. They are the quickest to put a political spin on the situation, to look for someone to blame instead of trying to figure out what they should do next.

A strong cast, speaking a mix of Arabic, Hebrew and French, keeps the emotional boil on low, so that the real feelings aren’t obscured by histrionics. Levy isn’t afraid to let her actors be quiet, to let us see them thinking and feeling without talking about either act.

And she’s also fearless about avoiding the obvious. A film like this seems like a natural place to debate the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict; instead, Levy backgrounds that quarrel. When the fathers start to get chesty about it, the wives shut them down and order them to focus on the kids.

Not that the issue isn’t there. But Levy makes a point of allowing us into lives of people who are actually living it – on both sides – without making judgments or taking sides. It is an element of their lives, but not their identity.

Provocative and compelling, “The Other Son” is the kind of movie that engenders a vigorous debate after viewing it. At a minimum, it will goad your mind to consider the issues – familial and political – in a new way.

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