It might seem that a foreign filmmaker with a résumé consisting mostly of television comedies wouldn't be a good fit for a melodrama about the ongoing conflict between the state of Israel and the Palestinian people. And there is a danger of glib superficiality when outsiders make a film that leans heavily on a legacy of conflict, conquest, repression and violence. But French filmmaker Lorraine Levy's The Other Son mostly avoids the pitfalls, including the tendency to treat the conflict with false equivalence—"a plague a' both your houses," as Mercutio says in Romeo and Juliet. No one says that here.
A comfortably middle-class Tel Aviv couple, Alon and Orith Silberg (Pascal Elbe and Emmanuelle Devos), are preparing to see their son, Joseph (Jules Sitruk), depart for his mandatory military service. But a routine battery of physical exams reveals that Joseph is not his parents' child. When he was born in a Haifa hospital during the Gulf War, Iraqi Scud missiles were raining down, and he was evacuated with another baby born in the same ward to a Palestinian woman. They were inadvertently switched.
The Jewish baby grew up in the West Bank as an Arab named Yacine (Mehdi Dehbi), while the Arab baby became Joseph. The two families are initially horrified by the discovery, and the two boys are profoundly disoriented. Joseph, once a star pupil in his religious studies, is told by his rabbi that he is no longer Jewish. Yacine finds himself disowned by his once-inseparable brother. But the families cautiously reach out to each other, and the two boys develop an awkward but earnest relationship, even comparing themselves to the two mythical sons of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael—the latter being an ancestor of Muhammad, according to Islamic tradition.
As improbable and sentimental as the story may sound, it proves to be a sturdy framework for examining two cultures that exist in a disputed land. (The film is largely in French, although Arabic, Hebrew and English are also spoken.) There's no question which baby exited the hospital as the prince and which left as the pauper: Yacine's family endures daily humiliations, reduced freedom of movement and limited educational and employment opportunities. When he is granted papers to travel from the West Bank to Tel Aviv, his bitterness at the sight of so much plenty is palpable. He spends much of his time at the beach, which Arab residents of the landlocked West Bank are not ordinarily able to see. In many ways, Yacine is his biological father's son—a clean-cut, serious-minded overachiever who plans to study medicine in Paris—and he looks with some scorn at Joseph's preoccupation with clothes, girls and music. In time, Joseph too finds himself venturing out from his sheltered upbringing.
As Yacine and Joseph spend time in each other's worlds, The Other Son becomes a powerful portrait of parental love. The mothers are quicker to accept the situation, seeing it as a gift of another child. (Both Devos and Areen Omari, as Yacine's mother, Leila, are exceptional as elegant and fiercely loving mothers.) Hardened by a lifetime of intractable realities, however, the fathers are slower to make overtures.
Despite an unconvincing event near the end, Levy and her scripting collaborators largely temper their melodramatic instincts, showing respect to people who are not their neighbors in an ancient and badly scarred land.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Both sides now."