As you may have guessed from the title, Lorraine Levy’s “The Other Son” follows a classic trope of “switched-at-birth” but with a cracking good, though portentous political update. Such narratives make us question nature versus nurture, and there’s plenty of that to go around in this drama. The story stumbles here and there, but there’s enough to recommend it.
We know something’s up when Joseph (Jules Sitruk) is turned down in his medical tests for the Israeli army when his blood type doesn’t match his parents, the army general Alon (Pascal Elbe) and his French wife Orith (Emmanuelle Devos). Turns out that being born during heavy shelling during the Gulf War has resulted in a mix up. Joseph is actually the son of a Palestinian family, Said (Khalifa Natour) and Leila (Areen Omari). This obviously comes as a shock to their son, Yacine (Mehdi Dehbi), who has just returned from medical school in Paris with his baccalaureate.
“The Other Son” doesn’t play out as one might expect. Apart from Yacine’s older brother Bilal, who initially rejects him on purely ideological lines, the families all accept that the matter at hand is very complicated. Joseph’s rabbi abruptly tells him he is no longer Jewish, but can come back as long as he converts. And tensions over the Occupation come to fore, but never overwhelm. Ms. Levy, who co-wrote the script with Nathalie Saugeon, wisely avoid melodrama at every step, and though the film isn’t stunning, this decision should be applauded.
If the film has a fault, it’s in its evenhanded approach to every main character in the narrative. The filmmakers try to bring every character out as three-dimensional, but they should have spent more time with the two “sons,” as their scenes together better explore the minefield of religion and culture that has shifted underneath them than other scenes with supporting characters. For example, Yacine travels to Tel Aviv and helps Joseph sell ice cream on the beach. Yacine is better than the slacker-ish Joseph because he engages, cajoles, and flatters his customers. The money is pocket change to Joseph, who is whiling away his summer hours. To Yacine he returns home with the equivalent of a month’s salary.
By the time we reach the end, Ms. Levy and Ms. Saugeon don’t seem to know how to wrap up the story. I felt the characters had just started to develop more, when the filmmakers insert some random drunken violence to pull everybody together and make some sort of facile “all blood is red” humanist point. The thing is, the film has made this point already at the beginning, and most of “The Other Son” shows how society and politics complicate matters.
The film is an interesting mix of French, English, Arabic, and Hebrew, as characters figure out how to talk to each other. Both sons, having come unstuck in their identities, sit back and share a joint in one scene. What else is there to do?
In the end, “The Other Son” works as an olive branch in a messy conflict, as well as a love letter to its beautiful Tel Aviv locations. You leave the theater wishing you could sit down with both families and have a good evening meal.