The wall that divides Israel from Palestine towers many times over head. Lined with razor wire, fortified with steel and watched over by a ceaseless procession of armed Israeli guards, it stands as a dramatic physical representation of a people divided. In French director Lorraine Lévy’s The Other Son, the stark and haunting image of this wall also embodies the impenetrable barriers of identity that we build around ourselves.
The film begins when Joseph (Jules Sitruk), a young Israeli about to begin his national military service, learns through a routine blood test that the people who raised him are not his biological parents. This revelation comes as a shock to both Joseph and his family, deepened by the ensuing discovery that their true son was switched at birth with a boy named Yacine (Mehdi Dehbi), the child of Palestinian parents (Areen Omari and Khalifa Natour) from the West Bank.
This fateful mistake in the hospital occurred in the chaotic aftermath of a Gulf War missile strike. And although the specter of political violence haunts the lives of all of the characters in this film, the questions of identity and Otherness that Lévy explores are more metaphysical than overtly political in nature. The Other Son peers into the depths of selfhood, asking why we so often forge our identities through opposition and exclusion. It wonders whether the boundaries that we build around ourselves—boundaries of culture, class, nation and religion—can be overcome through empathy and understanding, rather than called upon in the service of violence and hatred. But, ultimately, the film’s sensational premise and abrupt resolution detract from its hopeful and humanistic intent.
From the outset, The Other Son provides a portrait of the complexity and the richness of life on both sides of the Israel-Palestine divide, questioning many of the preconceptions that viewers may bring to this subject. Joseph dreams of becoming a professional musician—a wistful and idealistic aspiration embraced ambivalently by his father, an Israeli military officer (Pascal Elbé), and his mother (Emmanuelle Devos), a successful doctor. Yacine has just returned from studying abroad in Paris when he finds out the truth of his origins, with plans to return there shortly to attend medical school.
In spite of his humble origins, The Palestinian Yacine is more worldly, confident and ambitious than the Israeli Joseph, who drifts through his life of privilege without much thought for the future. When he learns of his true Jewish identity, Yacine immediately crosses over into Tel Aviv to sell ice cream on the beach, hit on young Israeli women and make a fleeting, yet poignant, connection with his biological mother. Joseph, on the other hand, struggles with the discovery, especially the confirmation by his rabbi that he is no longer Jewish.
Despite their varying reactions, the two sons quickly strike up a bond with each other, finding that, in many ways, they are not so different. They hang out on the beach, go to dance clubs and get stoned together. Joseph wonders to Yacine as he passes him a joint after a night of partying, “I’m my own worst enemy but I must love myself anyway, Do you ever think that?” Yacine responds, “Yes. Even as I’m smoking a joint with my own worst enemy. So pass it on.”
In a pivotal mid-film scene, Joseph and Yacine stand together before a mirror. “Isaac and Ishmael,” says Yacine. “Abraham’s two children,” evoking the shared ancestral and spiritual heritage that both unites and divides their people.
The two families in this film mirror each other in many striking ways. Yacine’s Israeli mother is a French-born doctor, while Joseph’s Palestinian father shares his passion for music. The fathers in both families hold onto their hatred, arguing with one another about the war and the occupation, even as they attempt to come together and find some common ground for the sake of their sons. But the mothers choose to share their love openly with both sons from the start, providing the hopeful possibility for a movement beyond the conflicts that have divided their people for centuries.
Shot on location in the West Bank and Tel Aviv, the earthen tones and bright pastels of Palestine contrast vividly with the glittering towers and pulsing neon lights of urban Israel. The film is deftly cast and superbly acted, with Emmanuelle Devos giving a particularly riveting performance as Joseph’s Israeli mother.
But The Other Son flounders in its second half to resolve its core conflicts in any convincing way. It opts instead for an epiphanic moment of bonding in which Joseph shows up unannounced on the doorstep of his Palestinian family. In a single scene, he magically wins over both his sad and distant birth-father and his militantly anti-Israeli brother Bilal, the most problematic character in the film. Representing the hardline faction of the Palestinian resistance movement, Bilal clings to the memory of his brother who was died in the war as a child, and is unapologetic and unrelenting in his hatred for Israelis.
But when Joseph crosses over into Palestine, Bilal has a sudden change of heart and wants nothing more than to see Tel Aviv. There, he wanders before department storefronts marveling at the clothes and trinkets and walks the Miami-style beaches with Joseph, seemingly in awe of the glistening modernity and trendy affluence of their surroundings.
In the film’s final scene, Joseph and Bilal get into a fight with some drunken strangers on the beach. One of these men stabs Joseph, who, after nearly dying in the hospital, wonders to his two Palestinian brothers, “If I’d died would I be buried an Arab or a Jew?” And Bilal responds, “Are you crazy? You’re alive,” seeming to have completed his own journey from hatred to the loving acceptance of his newly extended family. Yacine also stands at Joseph’s side, holding his hand, and joking that he called all of Joseph’s parents from the hospital to tell them the news of this nearly averted tragedy.
So, The Other Son begins with an impossible twist of fate and it ends with a random tragic circumstance, totally divorced from the logical progression of the story’s central conflict. The unfortunate result is that the film’s humanistic message of love and empathy triumphing over hatred and violence fails to resonant on any meaningful level. We are left instead with the truly tragic impression that it would take a coincidence of this magnitude for these two families to ever cross over the boundaries that divide them in hopes of finding common ground.