A switched-at-birth angle on the Israeli-Palestinian divide

A switched-at-birth angle on the Israeli-Palestinian divide
The goal of most films about Israelis and Palestinians — narrative features as well as documentaries — is to combat the real-world demonization and fear of the “enemy” by humanizing the other side.

The captivating and heartfelt drama “The Other Son” is a particularly unabashed example, conveying its good intentions in almost every shot. Made by French filmmakers and tailor-made for Western audiences desperate for a sign that peaceful coexistence is still possible, the film necessarily evinces a degree of naiveté.

The story is so emotionally involving, however, that “The Other Son” successfully transcends most intellectual objections.

In “The Other Son,” Joseph (left) and Yacine meet for the first time. photo/courtesy of ‘the other son’

“The Other Son,” the centerpiece film at the recent San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, opens Friday, Nov. 2, at the Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco and the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.

Directed by Lorraine Levy (writer-director of the French-Jewish female coming-of-age saga “The First Time I Turned Twenty”) from a screenplay she wrote with Nathalie Saugeon based on an idea by Noam Fitoussi, “The Other Son” insinuates us into a comfortable Israeli family whose son is about to join the army.

Joseph is an ordinary teenager who’s never questioned the privileges that come with being the Ashkenazi son of an army officer and a French-born doctor. (The Gallic connection, embodied by the

sensitive veteran actress Emmanuelle Devos as Joseph’s mother Orith, feels a little contrived but was probably necessitated by the film’s financing.)

A blood test reveals the shocking truth that Joseph isn’t, in fact, his parents’ child. A little digging reveals that he was accidentally switched at birth with another baby, who went home with an Arab couple.

So Joseph is actually Palestinian, and Yacine, who’s lived his entire life under the occupation, is Jewish. How’s that for a mess?

It’s not quite as terrible as it could be, because Yacine’s family is economically successful and he’s been enjoying the fruits of attending a university in Paris for the last year or two. (His fluency in French is both convenient and critical, for it reduces our perception of the gulf between Israelis and Palestinians as well as encouraging us to feel the connection when he and Orith meet for the first time.)

But the revelation is nonetheless earthshaking and disorienting for both sets of parents as well as for the two young men whose identities may still be developing but are well established in key ways.

The scenes in which Yacine and Joseph visit their birth parents are among the best in the film, balancing tension with steps toward common ground. Joseph’s visit to the territories is more fraught with uncertainty and danger, however, than Yacine’s journey past checkpoints to suburban Tel Aviv.

One of the movie’s strengths is its commitment to grounding the drama and advancing the plot in the families, rather than through, say, tabloid media coverage. While there’s plenty of sociopolitical commentary, the filmmakers recognize that the characters’ responses to this traumatic situation command our attention.

Inevitably, the extroverted Yacine and the reflective Joseph embark on a friendship as part of their individual needs to reformulate and come to terms with their identities. Yacine’s knack for selling ice cream on the Tel Aviv beach provides a few chuckles, but also precipitates a turn of events that pushes Joseph as far out of his comfort zone as he’s ever been.

And while Yacine discovers the appeal of assimilation, his militant brother begins to see him as a Jew, a Zionist and a traitor.

Glossy rather than gritty, “The Other Son” sidesteps some of the harder truths of life in the territories. That said, it does raise a number of worthy questions about the questionable morality of a two-tiered society.

And to its great credit, it does so without losing sight of the human dimension. “The Other Son” won’t change the world — or even, perhaps, French attitudes toward Israelis and Jews — but it comforts us with the possibility that we still may have the capacity to reason, to empathize and to accept.

“The Other Son” opens Friday, Nov. 2 at the Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco and the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. In Arabic, English, French and Hebrew with English subtitles. (Rated PG-13, 105 min.) Cinemas in Berkeley. In Arabic, English, French and Hebrew with English subtitles. (Rated PG-13, 105 min.)

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.