/ the other son
originally featured on

The problem of identity is a recurrent theme in all forms of self-expression. The painter’s self-portrait develops and refines painterly technique; musicians search for meaning in scores of heartbroken melody; and in cinema, the lens of the camera asks us again and again to question who we are by presenting us with ourselves. Are we the sum of our experience, constantly in flux and always changing? Or is our identity fixed, irrespective of culture and circumstance and destined, no matter how hard we try, to define us?


This fundamental question is at the core of French-Israeli drama, The Other Son, but its answers leave a little to be desired. As Joseph (Jules Sitruk) is preparing to enlist in the Israeli army, a routine blood test yields a startling result: he is not the biological son of his parents (Pascal Elbé and Emmanuelle Devos). It seems he shared a humidicrib with another baby, Yacine (Mehdi Dehbi), and in the confusion following a SCUD threat on their hospital, the infants were accidentally swapped: “Joseph” going to French-Israelis living in Tel Aviv, and “Yacine” to a Palestinian family on the West Bank. Both families are thrown into turmoil in the wake of the revelation, compounded by the deep racial and political gulf that separates them. At the centre of their parents’ grief are Joseph and Yacine, who must now grapple with a family they never knew they had, as well as the ultimate existential question: Who am I?


The Other Son is a film of dramatic impetus, but conventional execution. Mistaken identity, suspected betrayal, and the clash of two radically different worlds are elements of vintage melodrama, but the film never fully embraces the depth of its narrative implications, nor the excesses of the genre, to make it more than middling in its approach. Direction is efficient but the script holds little surprise (last minute dramatic turns are forgone conclusions, and meaningful character reversals are far from earned), which leaves the film two real strengths: the acting, and its politics.


The two aggrieved mothers are best served by the material, with both Emmanuelle Devos and Areen Omari (as Joseph’s birthmother) providing measured, sympathetic portrayals of women torn by their maternal responsibilities. Pascal Elbé and Kahlifa Natour (Joseph’s biological father) have less to do, but manage to soften the hard edges of masculinity in crisis. Both boys are ably rendered, if not entirely convincing as progeny of their biological parents and the actors portraying them.


Of greater interest are the political and religious implications of the boys’ real parentage. The militarised checkpoint between the affluent East Bank and the impoverished West provides numerous scenes charged with racial commentary (some made more subtly than others). An excellent scene between Joseph and his Rabbi, in which he’s informed (despite his faith and dedication in his life as “Joseph”) he will never “truly be” Jewish because of his Palestinian birth, is complex in a way the characters are only briefly allowed to contemplate. Yacine’s resentful older brother hovers on the precipice of true (possibly violent) radicalisation, forcing a seemingly irreconcilable schism between the devoted brothers. This particular thread, in itself worthy of a film examining the intersection of family and political resolve, is diluted by dull dramatic cliché.


Screening as part of the AICE Israeli Film Festival 2012, The Other Son is a capable, if unremarkable, family drama, buoyed by good performances and let down by low ambitions. Given the importance of the festival’s programming – and the exposure of reconciliatory Israeli films in general – there are undoubtedly more satisfying films engaging in the tropes and conversations The Other Son is, beyond a superficial level, unwilling to have.