Lorraine Lévy’s “The Other Son” rips that luxury out of the hands of her Israeli and Palestinian characters when she forces them to meet a monster — who is their own flesh and blood.
The movie sounds like a gimmick and you cringe at the many ways it could go wrong. But it never does.
Babies switched at birth sounds like the set up for a comedy or even farce. But a Jewish baby going home with a Palestinian couple and an Arab baby with an Israeli couple — that’s no laughing matter.
Lévy gets down to business from the opening shot. Eighteen-year-old Tel Aviv resident Joseph (Jules Sitruk), an aspiring musician, goes in for his physical in preparation for mandatory military service with the Israeli army.
His blood tests reveal he cannot be the biological offspring of his French-born mother, physician Orith (veteran French actress Emmanuelle Devos), and army commander father, Alon (Pascal Elbé).
Searching for an explanation at the Haifa hospital of his birth, the distraught mother realizes that a Scud missile attack near the hospital during the Gulf War forced Joseph’s evacuation moments after birth.
The male infant returned to Orith actually belonged to an Arab couple. Meanwhile that couple unknowingly bought the Jewish infant back to their West Bank home to raise as their son. The embarrassed hospital director has no choice but to inform both families of the incredible blunder.
Joseph’s head spins when he learns his parents are not his parents. “Am I still Jewish?” he asks. His rabbi gives an equivocal answer.
Their “other” son, Yacine (Medhi Dehbi), taking a break from medical studies in Paris, is trying to absorb the news when his own brother Bilal (Mahmood Shalabi) suddenly begins to treat him as the enemy.
Neither father knows what to do. Alon finds himself cleaning his car with a ferocious intensity in the dead of night. Said (Khalifa Natour) hides under his car, pretending to be fixing it, when his son arrives home from Paris. He can’t face the boy who is no longer his.
Decades of ritualistic hatred and animosity, not to mention a wall even uglier than that one in Berlin, divide the two families. Only these things no longer can do so: That Jew is now your brother. That Arab is now your son.
The families meet formally and awkwardly. They reach out only to pull the hands back. No one knows quite what to do as no playbook exists for this contingency.
Lévy goes about the rapprochement between these two families with keen logic and emotional intensity. You can see the characters thinking the situation through.
Can your son, the one you brought up, ever stop being your son? Can the “other” be any less your son? Or, as Joseph asks, am I still Jewish?
And what about all those strong feelings about the “others?” The young man with an Arab upbringing witnesses the ease with which the actual Arab boy crosses the border since the guards believe he’s Israeli. And that boy gets a taste of the daily humiliations of being a West Bank Palestinian.
Mothers will be mothers first but where lies their loyalty with this situation? As for the fathers, don’t get them started about the conflict. Inevitably of course they do — only to be abruptly cut off by their wives.
At one point the film almost hits that point where all you can do is laugh. Almost, mind you. Lévy never quite goes there. She knows to do so would risk the delicate balance she, as an outsider, has set up in a land that is not her own.
The film even evokes, in a joking reference by the young men while taking a “family” photograph, the ancient religious figures of Abraham and his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael.
In Jewish and Christian tradition, Abraham is considered the father of the Israelites through Isaac. In Islamic tradition, Abraham is considered a prophet of Islam and ancestor of Muhammad through Ishmael.
Possibly only an outsider could have made this film, shot in Israel and the West Bank. The viewpoint is removed and evenhanded to a fault compared even to those Israeli or Arab films that aim to take a liberal view.
In the end, it is a French film, even to the point of twisting birth places and logic so that nearly every character except the Palestinian dad and other son speak fluent French.
In “The Other Son” a French woman and her collaborators, most notably her co-writers Nathalie Saugeon and Noam Fitoussi, play out a French take on the Middle East with liberté, égalité, fraternité trumping Middle Eastern bull-headedness and fanaticism.
Without a moment of preaching, the production design can’t help emphasizing the vastly different households in Tel Aviv and the West Bank. One is suitably upper middle-class; the other just barely rises above the surrounding squalor.
The film takes a dip into melodrama in the final minutes, perhaps because Lévy is afraid she hasn’t completely driven her point home. It isn’t necessary and nearly upsets that delicate balance the film otherwise quite nicely establishes.
“The Other Son” may be wishful thinking but it does show what might happen — what can happen — when the luxury of hatred is taken away.
Opens October 26, 2012 (Cohen Media Group)
Production companies: Rapsodie Production, Cite Films, France 3 Cinema, Madeleine Films, Solo Films
Cast: Emmanuelle Devos, Pascal Elbe, Jules Sitruk, Mehdi Dehbi, Areen Omari, Khalifa Natour, Mahmood Shalabi
Director: Lorraine Lévy
Screenwriters: Lorraine Lévy, Nathalie Saugeon, Noam Fitoussi
Producers: Virginie Lacombe, Raphael Berdugo
Executive producer: Itai Tamir
Director of photography: Emmanuel Soyer
Production designers: Miguel Markin, Eytan Levy
Music: Dhafer Youssef
Costume designers: Rona Doron, Valerie Adda
Editor: Sylvie Gadmer
No rating, 105 minutes