Photo: Cohen Media Group
The trope of getting switched at birth goes way back to Shakespeare, but French director Lorraine Levy gives it new urgency by setting it in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for her movie "The Other Son."
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Joseph Silberg (Jules Sitruk) is a dreamy kid with musical ambitions and a mop of curly hair that makes him look a bit like a "Highway 61"-era Bob Dylan. We first see him going through a military physical, hoping to join an elite paratrooper group, just like his dad. Yet there's something strange with his blood test. Soon his mother, Orith -- a physician -- realizes that there's been a ghastly mistake. In the chaos of a Scud missile attack during the Gulf War, her newborn baby was switched with a Palestinian infant. The couple's biological child, who grew up in the West Bank, looks much more like someone who would jump out of an airplane; Yacine Al Bezaaz (Mehdi Dehbi) is an athletic, charismatic lad who is studying medicine in Paris. (For a movie about the Middle East, there's a surprising amount of French here. The Silbergs happen to be French Jews who speak French at home.) The two families start an uneasy relationship with each other. While the mothers bond, the men of the families are too wrapped up in history to come together. Joseph's father, Alon, has spent his life defending Israel, while Yacine's father, Said, still nurses wounds -- both literal and psychological -- from an undefined encounter with the Israeli military.
Aided in no small part by some deft performances by the two leads, the movie is the most moving when it delves into the strange emotional and existential journey of each son. Both find themselves on the outside of groups they had built their identity around. A devoted synagogue goer, Joseph suddenly discovers that he's not actually Jewish and has to go through a complex conversion. Yacine is suddenly looked at with suspicion by his brother Bilal, who spends much of the movie with a cartoonish scowl on his face. Yacine eventually tracks down Joseph and they become friends, though their relationship is laden with emotional landmines. In one scene, Yacine and his biological mother share a moment together, but when Joseph walks in on them, his face is flush with newfound feelings of sibling rivalry.
Levy has a light touch with their relationship and manages to capture some nice emotional nuances. But with the bigger picture, she doesn't quite have command of the material. Though her politics are clearly against Israel's occupation of the West Bank -- there are plenty of scenes of Palestinians trying to get through their day in spite of Israeli checkpoints -- her portrayal of the Al Bezaaz family feels stilted and schematic, as if she's afraid to show the Palestinians in anything but a positive light. By contrast, the scenes among the middle-class, French-speaking Israeli family are much more emotionally shaded. The result is that the movie just can't quite deal with its premise in a way that feels honest or fully satisfying. Overall, "The Other Son" is a touching, well-meaning movie that though it never becomes maudlin still feels a bit pat.
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See the trailer for 'The Other Son':