Film Review: The Other Son

Potent switched-at-birth concept is switched onto more controversial turf in this timely drama of two 18-year-olds, one Israeli, the other Palestinian, who learn that, following their same-day births at the same hospital, they were given to the wrong p

The Other Son is one potent and intelligent package. Its strong story, top production values and fresh approach to an intractable and endless, headline-grabbing problem signal strong art-house response.

The plot kicks off in wary but prosperous Tel Aviv, a too-often violent world away from the less pleasant confines of the occupied West Bank of the Palestinians. The tipoff to the drama that ensues occurs when almost 18-year-old Israeli Joseph (Jules Sitruk) signs up for his requisite military service and results of his blood test come to the attention of his French/Israeli parents Orith (the well-known Emmanuelle Devos), a French-born doctor, and Alon (Pascal Elbé), an Israeli-born army commander.

Concerned his blood type is not consistent with hers or Alon’s, Orith consults with medical colleague David (Bruno Podalydes), who does some research. It becomes clear that Joseph could not be their biological son. Further inquiries at the Haifa hospital where he was born reveal that he was accidentally switched just after birth with a Palestinian baby of the same age and DNA tests make this conclusive.

A Haifa doctor brings the two families together to explain and apologize about the terrible mistake that occurred during the Gulf War, when both babies had to be evacuated. The two mothers, he explains, were in neighboring rooms when each gave birth. No surprise that the two couples, including the Palestinian parents Said (Khalifa Natour) and Leila (Areen Omari), are shocked, incredulous and suspicious of each other. The four parents begin by exchanging photos of sons Joseph, an aspiring musician, and Yacine (Mehdi Dehbi), who has been studying in Paris, where he just passed the all-important baccalaureate that will enable him to pursue his medical studies. Reacting to the photos, their remarkable expressions don’t require words, even if words could possibly convey the emotional impact of so belatedly discovering their real children.

Orith and Leila get off to a relatively cordial start, but it’s Said, living in the occupied West Bank with his family, who especially struggles with the fact that the son he so loves and has been raising was born Jewish and Israeli. And it is little help that Said’s older son and Yacine’s older brother Bilal (Mahmood Shalabi) is staunchly anti-Israel and bitter about the Palestinian land he believes Israel stole and is illegally occupying. Confined to the West Bank, Said, although trained as an engineer, must work as a mechanic to earn a living.

Joseph is the first son told of the “mix-up.” Of course he’s upset and seeks the rabbi’s (Ezra Dagan) help, but “help” may be stretching things as the rabbi suggests that the West Bank-raised Yacine is more Jewish than Joseph, who now must go through some kind of conversion process to earn back his Judaism.

The film crosscuts between what are clearly both very decent families, between the comfortable, modern Tel Aviv environs where the Jewish family lives and Said and Leila’s contrasting environment of a warm and tidy house situated amidst massive concrete walls and humiliating checkpoints that, as the Israeli thinking goes, keep the Palestinians at bay lest acts of terrorism and revolt erupt.

The parents make a mutual decision for the two sons to meet, and with Yacine’s arrival from Paris the awkward reunions are set in motion. What follows are beautifully constructed and suspenseful moments that will keep audiences wondering.

But, not to diminish its dramatic punch, The Other Son is ultimately a feel-good film that doesn’t talk down. The two families, in spite of nuances of iconic Nelson Family niceness, are very clearly of distinct cultures and have justified reasons for anger and suspicion.

Also affording a savvy look at the younger generation (which will be charged with fixing so many things), The Other Son doesn’t take sides when it comes to the remarkably stubborn Israeli/Palestinian impasse but subtly suggests by way of subtext where possible solutions may lie. Such ideas may “occupy” the minds of politically concerned moviegoers who share the filmmakers’ view that the absurdity and violence of wars may not mean they are inevitable.