While those with prior knowledge of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict will get the most out of this film, The Other Son offers a compelling drama that transcends the two cultures and four languages it’s told through. Though the premise of an Israeli and Palestinian being switched at birth is a bit hypothetical, the emotional journey it takes viewers on proves real. Exceptional performances, thought-provoking subject matter, and a fresh, transcultural story make this an experience out of the norm.
Newly 18, carefree Israeli Joseph Silberg (Jules Sitruk) plays guitar and spends his nights on the beaches of Tel Aviv in advance of his mandatory military service. On the other side of the militarized border, Muslim Arab Yacine Al Bezaaz (Mehdi Dehbi) is returning to the West Bank after studies in Paris. When Joseph’s preliminary blood tests reveal that he does not have his parents’ blood type, a doctor uncovers the fact that another baby, Yacine, was born at the same time, in the same Haifa hospital as Joseph, both of whom were evacuated due to heavy fire during the Gulf War, and must have been returned to the wrong families. The truth throws the two families’ lives into upheaval and forces them to connect despite immense cultural, social and religious differences.
Reason enough to see the film, veteran actress Emmanuelle Devos and Areen Omari give complex and unforgettable performances as French-born Israeli Orith Silberg and Arab Muslim Leïla Al Bezaaz, the two mothers who are first to build a bridge between their households. From the outset, Orith (Devos) views the crisis with an objectivity that never seems detached, layered with a current of love for the son she raised, Joseph, and longing for the biological son she didn’t, Yacine, that is electric. Omari’s Leïla is a modern Muslim woman who displays a spectrum of emotion in negotiating with her husband Said (Khalifa Natour) to tell Yacine that he’s actually Jewish, diffusing her eldest son Bilal’s (Mahmood Shalabi) strong anti-Jewish sentiments, and maintaining the household with covertly stashed cash from Yacine’s newfound access to Tel Aviv. Natour’s Said hits deep as well, and Pascal Elbé holds his own as Orith’s husband Alon, despite not getting the opportunity to show much emotion beyond Alon’s reserve as a military colonel.
While occasional moments in the story do alternate between too easily resolved and a bit heavy-handed, the film as a whole is thoughtful and engaging. The friendship Joseph and Yacine build over ice cream, girls, and hashish is a joy to watch, and hearts will be touched by the moments where each asserts his own identity. The best parts of the story are the efforts the characters make to overcome the Jewish/Muslim, Israeli/Arab divide and the delicate ways in which trust is built, anger squelched, and love expressed.
From Tel Aviv’s beaches and night clubs to the proletarian street scenes of the West Bank, the film’s vibrant cultural backdrop is filled with music, side conversations, and a sense of community that make watching it feel like dinner at a friend’s place. Pop culture references like Joseph’s Bob Dylan t-shirt and Nike soccer jerseys Yacine brings from Paris for him and Bilal add a dose of the familiar, while a mix of dialogue in English, French, Hebrew, and Arabic, though sometimes troublesome, gives the film a fresh, global feel. Different in a good way, this film stays with you.
While the militarized border the characters must constantly cross suggests this film aspires to spark conversation more than to entertain, it does a good job of both. Viewers looking to watch a film more so than a movie will likely be pleased.