By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
The beauty of director Lorraine Levy’s “The Other Son,” a thoughtful film about two young men—one Israeli, one Palestinian—who find out they were switched at birth, is its simplicity. No, wait, on second thought, change that to complexity. All of which is my coy and admittedly sophomoric way of educing the essence of this touching meditation.
You see, aside from your mother’s love, there are few absolutes in this existence, a situation that causes us much consternation. Curled fingers pressed against teeth in our daily search for the truth, whether buying a car, deciding on green or black olives or choosing the leader of the free world, the sane among us wants to do the right thing.
The thing is, what is that thing? And while we’re at it, right by whose definition? Thus, it is easy to commiserate with the plight soon faced by the families Al Bezaaz and Silberg, possessors of the changelings in question. With director Levy as tour guide to a hoped for truth, open-minded viewers soon see the wisdom of dismissing all those preconceptions.
Beautifully embroidered, though its astute, bold stroke is ultimately betrayed by some good intentions that can’t be revealed here, the Biblical-like conundrum lends itself to multifarious explorations, from politics, to marriage, to the yearnings of youth. Via her microcosm, writer-director Levy identifies the DNA of the greater problem at hand.
That being the far-reaching enmity between Israel and the Palestinians. In French, with a little Arabic, a smidgen of Hebrew and a soupçon of English tossed in just to make a linguistic point, the subtitles are also in English. Lovingly prepared as if by a Parisian chef skilled in not wasting an iota of ingredient, it is chock full of subtle philosophy.
A light example, in this case some comedy relief about marital bliss, helps cut the tension when Dr. Orith Silberg, exquisitely portrayed by Emmanuelle Devos, nervously prepares her Tel Aviv table for a visit from the Al Bezaazes. Beckoning hubby (Pascal Elbe), a colonel in the defense dept., to help, she then instantly admonishes his inaction.
Now, truth be told, the stirring message that universal truths can emanate from the smallest examples is a nice idea, even if a bit too pie in the sky. Yet for Ms. Levy’s creative purposes, the fanciful implication that world peace could result from the soulful entreaty of a motion picture works quite well. At the very least, it delineates the problem.
The maelstrom is unleashed when Joseph, heretofore Alon and Orith’s fully Jewish son, gets back his army induction blood work. He had intended to follow in his illustrious war hero dad’s footsteps. Alas, something’s amiss…it just can’t be. But it can, assures mom, who knows that genetics tells no lies. As my great grandma might aptly emote, “Oy vay!”
After the families meet formally, individual get-togethers take place, each member of the two clans needing to satisfy a curiosity. Telling conversations, especially between the protagonists, Joseph (Jules Sitruk) and Yacine (Mehdi Dehbi), share thoughts on identity, religion, and nationality. Tentative alliances form, and bewildered moms commiserate.
Ms. Levy pulls few punches in using the plight suddenly confronting her characters to analyze the political tragedy that is an ever-present part of their lives. Particularly searing is the obvious socioeconomic disparities and the unapologetic, cutting reality of the border crossings. A smart comparison of mores and folkways makes a few subtler points.
Some awfully good acting effectively captures both the delicate and harsh nuances that paint this poignant canvas. The emotions explored make for a filmic mother’s day card. If you don’t shed a tear, or at least emit a sigh when, after twenty years, the two mommies first espy their biological baby boys, then you’re as cold as Mr. Spock.
The skeptical dads, who can’t help but speculate why the son they thought was their son is technically not, furrow the brow with seriocomic dismay. But it’s the splendidly realized, misplaced young men in question who form the crux of “The Other Son’s” humanizing experience. A solid supporting cast helps evoke the background sociology.
It’s all rather stimulating…not just the PBS-quality look at current events, but also the diverting segue into independent, artistic, Foreign Film Land, subtitles and all that. One inured to the mainstream side of the cinema street, wherein plot is more often secondary to special effects and/or obscure hypotheses, is nicely reminded that the play’s the thing.
Filmmaker Levy confirms this with formidably creative economy, jam-packing her script with intricately woven, thought provoking ideas. But pity me. Long rendered irrelevant by Hollywood, I’m probably beyond any positive acculturation. But you, dear reader, still not a captive of the multiplex mentality, will find “The Other Son” an ennobling change.
“The Other Son,” rated PG-13, is a Cohen Media Group release directed by Lorraine Levy and stars Emmanuelle Devos, Jules Sitruk and Mehdi Dehbi. Running time: 105 minutes