While preparing to join carry out his military service for the Israeli army, Joseph (Jules Sitruk) discovers that he was switched at birth with Yacine (Mehdi Dehbi) who has been raised by Joseph’s real parents- who are Palestinian. The revelation causes turmoil in both families and forces them to examine their identities, values and beliefs.
Here’s a rule movie makers live by: suspend disbelief or else die. Some very daft and dumb movies have breathed conviction because their stories have been sculptured with a verisimilitude so strong they seemed to have been lived rather than dreamed.
"Lorraine Lévy makes every improbability of plot and action plausible."
Scrutinised sanely, the premise of The Other Son – a gloss on The Prince and the Pauper and perhaps Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, set in the West Bank and Israel – is fantastic, but the movie is alive because director Lorraine Lévy makes every improbability of plot and action plausible.
This French film survives as cinema, because, at best, it’s a cogent melodrama; it opens up an emotional space that’s authentic and deeply felt. It helps, too, that the surface details of time and place – the checkpoints, the city wall that recalls a prison, the casual racism, the feelings of exile and entitlement, the deep resentments – are forever present. But what really sells this yarn is not its intellectual ambitions about identity and race and the Palestinian conflict, but its human story. This is a movie about family and the power of mother love.
Levy and co-writers Nathalie Saugeon and Noam Fitoussi carefully build the movie’s house-of-cards plot with each crucial documentary element based on the relatively recent Israeli/Palestinian experience, but it’s pregnant with symbolic value.
As is well known, military service is compulsory for Israeli nationals. A DNA test is required. This movie turns that fact of life in that place into a device to get the action going. It also lands the 'how do we determine who we are’ theme-beat here with a thunk you could hear around the world"¦ but the less said about that the better.
Still, here’s an example of how Levy and co. use the history of the region to establish credibility for its fable-like narrative: In 1991, there were scud missile attacks on Haifa. Imagine two young mothers, one Jewish, one Palestinian, each with new babies, swept off to safety until the danger has passed. But after the violence, what if, in the confusion, the two newborns were accidentally given to the wrong mothers? And what if these children were delivered into good families with a lot of love? And what if this 'mistake’ is not uncovered for 18 years?
This crucial bit of backstory is not dramatised directly in the movie. We hear about it the way the principals do. I think it’s the best scene in the film. The two families have been summoned into a stark and severe hospital office. A doctor explains this un-explainable thing. His guilt is sad, his apology sincere, but of course it’s not enough. We watch the parents and their mutual heartbreak as the truth crashes into the room. Will these people, raised as enemies, allow this new fact of their existence to change their lives? That’s Levy’s real plot. As the story progresses, this set-up allows each family a chance to see how the 'other half’ lives.
The two fathers are antagonistic. The two mothers find an instant empathy. The two boys, Joseph (Jules Sitruk), Palestinian, raised as a Jew, is traumatised by his new identity; Yacine (Medhi Dehbi), a Jew raised as a West Bank Palestinian, takes the news in his stride. As the movie opens he’s just returned from Paris (he’s a med undergraduate). He has the arrogance and the distance of a man who understands that the world is bigger than the place he comes from. That awareness, though, carries with it a special kind of pain.
The acting is very good. Sitruk and Dehbi are fine but I especially liked Emmanuelle Devos as the Jewish mother, Orith, and Areen Omari, who plays Leila, the Palestinian mum. The way they support each other as actors (and characters) is terrific. There’s a great bit where Orith’s family host a 'breaking of bread’ get-together for the two families. When it threatens to get ugly, Leila and Orith work to keep the peace with well-placed strategic eye contact, the right words, and a soothing reassurance. As a dramatic microcosm for the Jewish/Palestinian conflict, this set-piece is trite, but as a bit of domestic melodrama, it’s deft and moving.
The two fathers, Khalifa Natour as Said Al Bezaaz and Pascal Elbe as Alon, are strong players. But their roles – the intractable Palestinian 'victim’ and the indignant and distinguished Jewish officer respectively – are emptied of subtle complications. The optimistic script leaves them with nothing to do but face this dilemma by agreeing to get along.
The one character here that is allowed to undertake a genuine emotional inventory on screen is Yacine’s 'angry young man’ brother, Bilal (Mahmood Shalabi). The way he moves from bitter confusion to something approaching self-knowledge is very touching (and since it’s done in only a handful of scenes, a triumph of directing, writing and acting).
The Other Son has that stark, scorching morality of a Biblical story. That is to say, it’s built to instruct; it believes in miracles like peace and it preaches hope. That is bound to play as a fairytale for some; an offence and a comfort to others. But the heartbreak it conjures – and its tears – seemed very real and genuine to me, at least while the film was running.
Watch 'The Other Son'
Friday 3 April, 12:45am on SBS VICELAND (also now streaming at SBS On Demand)
Director: Lorraine Lévy
Starring: Emmanuelle Devos, Pascal Elbé, Jules Sitruk
What's it about?
While preparing to carry out his military service for the Israeli army, Joseph (Sitruk) discovers that he was switched at birth with Yacine (Dehbi) who has been raised by Joseph’s real parents- who are Palestinian. The revelation causes turmoil in both families and forces them to examine their identities, values and beliefs.