The Arab-Israeli conflict brings a volatile and jumbled mix of emotions, identities and assumptions, and is often difficult to comprehend. Thankfully, you don’t have to fully understand the conflict to be emotionally invested in “The Other Son,” a moving French film by director Lorraine Levy (“Un divorce de chien”). The film is really about the bonds of family, the crushing confusion that comes with identity loss and the length to which unconditional love stretches. It’s thoughtful and universally heart-wrenching, no matter your political standing.
The Other Son
At the Michigan
Cohen Media Group
At the heart of “The Other Son” are two young men who live just miles apart but in entirely different worlds — Joseph Silberg (the luminous Jules Sitruk, “Mon pere est femme de ménage”) is a 17-year-old sheltered musician living with his upper-class Jewish family in Tel Aviv, while Yacine Al Bezaaz (Mehdi Dehbi, “Le sac de farine”) is an ambitious Palestinian from the West Bank. In an ironic instance of unity between the two factions, these boys were mistakenly switched at birth during a hospital evacuation. Seventeen years later, their parents make this life-altering discovery while sitting side-by-side in the hospital where it all began, the fathers both shocked and stoic, the mothers bonding over the emotional significance of it all.
This is the defining moment of the film — these mothers sitting together, silently unified in their mirrored losses and gains. The film is never bogged down by political or racial opposition, but instead finds its cohesive strength in how Orith Silberg (Emmanuelle Devos, “Bachelor Days are Over”) and Leïla Al Bezaaz (Areen Omari, “Laila’s Birthday”) handle the heavy issues at hand. Their sons have not just lost their place within their own families, but within their religion, their ethnicity and their social standing.
Dehbi and Sitruk deftly portray this identity crisis between two of the most conflicted identities in the world with grace and believability. In a heartbreaking scene, Joseph asks his mother with frantic tears in his eyes if he is still Jewish. Yacine valiantly struggles to stay connected to his older brother, an ardent Palestinian who can’t justify his brother’s newly discovered place in their divisive society.
While the movie does not focus on political debate, it’s always present and on point. Joseph and his family are wealthy and privileged, and he spends his time much like an American teen would — by listening to Bob Dylan on the beach with his friends. They are the fortunate ones, while the Al Bazaaz family lives under a constant state of mild oppression. Yacine and his family have never known this privilege and freedom, and this angers and isolates his brother and father, who both oppose meeting Joseph at all.
These groups have been conditioned to fear and hate each other, and overcoming that and recognizing their similarities is the film’s basis. The nearly silent interactions between these families are poignant because they make you realize once again how great the tension is, how little they really have to talk about and yet how hard they try to overcome this.
The film doesn’t reduce the conflict to Israeli vs. Palestinian or Jewish vs. Muslim. Yes, those are key identities, but the focus is other identities these characters share — Joseph and his biological father are both musicians, the two younger sisters love the same dolls, Yacine and Joseph bond over girls and joints. At times it almost seems too easy how quickly the characters bond and forgive, but the conflict is always an undercurrent even as they are singing “Kumbaya” around the campfire. The acting makes up for this flaw, because each actor both embodies their character and shows the deep inner turmoil they feel with this unfathomable change, and the script has a cohesive, realistic flow that makes their situation so much more relatable.
“The Other Son” is a stunning portrayal of family life when it is tested to its breaking point, and at the same time a thought-provoking look at what really defines who we are.