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Given the hackneyed premise of this French film – two baby boys switched at birth – so many things could have gone wrong. One of the boys is born Palestinian but is raised by an Israeli family, the other baby is in the reverse situation. However, The Other Son is something of a triumph: Rather than a lighthearted morality tale, it is serious; rather than a comedy, it is a successful drama; and, finally, rather than a heavy-handed political allegory, it is a compelling story of people and family.
When Joseph (Sitruk) applies to do his mandatory stint in the Israeli army, it is discovered that his blood type is incompatible with that of his parents. His mother, Orith (Devos), is convinced there has been a mix-up and has him retested. When the same results are achieved, a doctor explores the situation. It turns out Orith gave birth during the Gulf War and, due to fears of an imminent Scud attack, her baby was taken to a shelter. There, another baby was born at the same time. The babies were returned to the wrong moms.
Obviously, discovering the truth is devastating, especially to the sons involved – Joseph and Yacine (Dehbi) – but also their families. This is especially true of the fathers (Elbé and Natour), although both mothers (Devos and Omari) open their hearts and expand their love. Each woman accepts the new child she knew nothing about, without in any way rejecting the child she raised.
Dealing with the consequences of this mix-up is made more difficult by the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. The situation is accented by this tension, which resonates metaphorically throughout the film, but in a sophisticated and not paint-by-numbers way. The stark differences between the lives of the Palestinians (very much stuck in an oppressive, near-poverty world) and the Israelis (who are much freer and better-off) are indicated without undue hysterics. The languages spoken in the film include Arabic and Hebrew, with people from different backgrounds often talking to each other in English or French.
These disparities are emphasized in very human terms. Joseph, whose entire identity is bound up in being Jewish, is told by his rabbi that he will now need to officially convert to the faith since he was born to a non-Jewish mother. Yacine’s brother Bilal (Shalabi) turns on his beloved sibling because he is and always had been a Jew.
Slowly, very slowly, the two boys begin to integrate into their new worlds without rejecting their old ones. Just as gradually, the fathers come around, and the families expand instead of swapping out children. There is a great scene in which Joseph’s sister reveals that she has explained the situation to her girlfriends, whose only reaction is that brothers are yucky regardless.
Perceptively, in The Star-Ledger critic Stephen Whitty writes: “In the end, it seems, this is not a story about two families, and two lands. It’s a story about one family, and one world.”
Cinematically well-made, The Other Son is nevertheless workmanlike. The actors are all excellent, the storytelling compassionate, and the overall sense one takes from the film is more humane than political.