October 18, 2012
The Other Son
The film by French writer-director Lorraine Levy is the most moving tale I've seen about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in recent memory. It is not so much about the conflict, however, as the story it tells exists within it, illuminating the profound religious and geopolitical issues that complicate the region. This film can (and likely will) be talked about.
It tells the story of two sons, one Israeli and the other Palestinian, accidentally switched at birth. They come of age in disparate worlds.
Yosef is raised in a beautiful Tel Aviv suburb where he moves freely about in a world that is open to him. He spends his time courting girls, playing the guitar and drinking with friends around bonfires at the beach. His father is a commanding officer in the Israeli military and his family enjoys status and respect. His little sister plays with dolls and his mother wears flowy summer dresses and maybe even fantasizes about other men.
Yosef is Jewish.
Yacine lives in a remote West Bank town and has just returned from Paris, where relatives have taken him in so he can study to become a doctor. He must obtain papers in order to pass through a checkpoint and cross the border in and out of Israel. His family is poor; meat is a luxury. His father is a mechanic and a broken man. His older brother is aimless, angry and rebellious, and spends his time with other discontented teenagers who seem on the brink of destruction. Yacine's youngest brother was killed. His mother is sensitive and soulful, but scarred. She does her best to placate miserable men.
Yacine is Palestinian Muslim.
And then one day he is not.
At 17, Yacine discovers he is really the biological child of Israeli Jews. And from the perch of privilege, Yosef has to face his ties to life inside the territories.
After years of studying at a yeshiva and becoming a bar mitzvah, Yosef's rabbi tells him he is not a Jew and must convert. He becomes a kind of stranger to his mother. His blood is not her blood.
Both mothers love the children they have raised but deeply yearn to know the other son they carried.
The film raises some of the most complex questions about identity and belief a person can encounter. At times it makes you squirm with discomfort, as it forces you to confront hard questions. Impossible questions: What if you had been born on the other side of everything you think you know? What if, but for the grace of God, you were born into another race, another class, another religion? How would you know yourself? How would you relate to your family? Can seventeen years be undone in an instant?
The Other Son seems to be asking: How flimsy are the labels we use to define ourselves, and how powerful the biological bonds that reside within us? What makes a person who they are -- nature or nurture? Is the human heart so bound up in blood, no other love can compare?