By Hannah Lee
Last night, I was fortunate to watch The Other Son at the Bala Cinema, before the whole township closed down for Hurricane Sandy. My family declined to join me, thinking it too sad to watch a movie about two babies switched at birth (because of a Scud attack to the hospital’s region in Haifa) and one son growing up with a professional Israeli family and the other with a Palestinian family barely eking a living on the West Bank. The premise was wretching, but it was also beautifully acted, especially the expressive face of the Palestinian mother played by Areen Omari. Directed by Lorraine Levy, a Frenchwoman, it tries to give a human face to the Middle East conflict. It was filmed in Israel, and shown in French as the dominant language (with English subtitles), and supplemented by Hebrew, Arabic, and English.
Joseph is the musician son of an Israeli Army colonel, Alon Silberg, and a physician mother, Orith. At age 17, a blood test for Joseph being drafted into military service proves that he is not their son. Their baby was switched with another baby born premature the same day by a Palestinian woman, Leïla Al Bezaaz, who was visiting her sister. This other son, Yassin, has just passed his baccalaureate exams in Paris and is expected to commence his medical studies. He plans to return to the West Bank and, with his older brother, Bilal, open a hospital there, so other families would not have to grieve over a child dying from inadequate medical care, as happened to their brother, Fariz (circumstances not detailed in the film).
The shock of mistaken identity is intensified for these two families who are on opposite sides of the political war of existence. Is Joseph, who’d had a brit milah and a bar mitzvah and who was the star pupil of his yeshiva, still a Jew? No, said his Rabbi sadly, but he only need to immerse in a mikveh, under the supervision of three rabbis. So, was Yassin who’d been raised by Arabs a more authentic Jew than he was? Does he exchange his kippah for a suicide bomb?
Yassin better learn Hebrew, taunts the border guard, who’d presumably been informed by their Army superiors. Both fathers, Alon and Saïd, struggle to cope with the devastating news, and Bilal who lashes out at Yassin, for being an enemy in their midst. But he was the same person as before, with the same dreams, responded Yassin. The two mothers, Orith and Leïla, are the harbors in a storm, the ones who quickly adapt to the cruelty of fate, and caution their men for love and acceptance.
A special visa from Colonel Silberg allows Yassin to seek out Joseph, who’s selling ice cream (poorly) at the beach. Yassin offers his more agile sales technique and Joseph gives him half his day’s earnings, which Yassin noted was almost a full month’s wages for his father, an engineer who works as an auto mechanic (because he’s not allowed to work outside of the West Bank).
When Joseph attempts to visit Yassin at his home, he is welcomed but to the neighbors he is labeled the nephew from Paris. When Leïla realizes that the Silbergs did not know of his intentions, she calls them with the news. The Silbergs race to the border at dusk, and it was poignant to watch the Colonel race-walking along the border fence, in an effort to find his son before he comes to harm.
Spoiler alert: In the climactic scene, Bilal gets to visit Tel Aviv, but the boys are attacked on the beach and Joseph sustains a serious abdominal cut and needs emergency care. When he awakens, Bilal, who’s also been bloodied in the attack, tells Joseph that he’d alerted his parents. Which ones, queried Joseph, with a weak smile. It’s the bizarre and charming premise of the film that people have hearts big enough to adapt and welcome new members into the circle of loved ones. I’m not convinced it’s a fitting metaphor for the troubles of the Middle East, but it’s a delightful conclusion to the film for me.