“The Other Son” opens today at Sundance Cinemas; PG-13, 1:45, 3 stars (out of 4).
Joseph is a Dylan-loving Jewish teenager living in Tel Aviv. Yacine is a Palestinian medical student living on the other side of the wall. Under normal circumstances, they would never meet.
Except that they did cross paths once, as newborn babies born in the same hospital during the tumult of the first Gulf War. And, in the midst of that turmoil, they were switched at birth.
The premise for Lorraine Levy’s “The Other Son” sounds like something out of a soap opera, or an unusually political-minded episode of “Celebrity Wife Swap.” But the film, which opens at Sundance Cinemas today as part of the Screening Room calendar, goes to great lengths to make us believe its premise, and then use it to make a humane and surprisingly hopeful film about Israeli-Palestinian relations.
When Joseph (Jules Sitruk) applies for his mandatory military service, his physical shows that his blood type doesn’t match his parents. His mother, a French doctor (Emmanuelle Devos), discovers that her son isn’t really hers. She’s raising the son of a Palestinian couple on the West Bank, while they have her son, Yacine (Mehdi Dehbi).
Of course, it’s not so easy to simply switch them back 18 years later. Both Joseph and Yacine are devoted to their families, and perhaps more keenly devoted to their cultures. As the news sinks in, Joseph says, “I don’t feel Jewish, but I don’t feel Arab either. I don’t feel anything.” He goes to his rabbi, who, tears in his eyes, says that Joseph must now convert to Judaism, the religion he has lived since birth.
The Palestinian parents, especially the father, are more angered at the news; harboring resentment against the Israeli government, he sees it as one more attempt by the Israelis to take away what’s his. It’s at this point “The Other Son” faces a choice — it could have been a bleak message movie about the intractability of tribal identity and ethnic strife, or it could have been a film about our ability to transcend those identities.
Levy chooses the latter path, which is moving without always being convincing. The view of the Israeli-Palestinian divide seems milder than we’ve seen in other movies, the checkpoints more of a mild nuisance than a true insult. Or maybe it’s that we’re so used to seeing the conflict heightened in other films that the sight of everyday, uneventful life in the occupation is so striking.
And I think there is some truth to the idea that politics can fall by the wayside once your family is involved. Look at the conservative politicians who embraced gay marriage once they learned a son or daughter was gay, or went to bat for stem-cell research after they learned an ailing granddaugher could benefit. Levy is smart to make this transformation hesitant and awkward, with the two sons quicker to bond than their parents.
“Isaac and Ishmael,” Yacine says as the two boys look at themselves in the mirror. Go back far enough, past centuries of strife, and they are part of the same family after all.