The Other Son, a French film directed by Lorraine Levy, is a visually powerful narrative that puts forth a strong point in favour of individual identity against the non-favourable backdrop of the Israel-Palestine issue.
The end of the film could as well have been the beginning. Whether an end or a beginning, the last words, in 'The Other Son', contain the essence of the entire narrative as it unfolds the myriad layers of complicated lives between two enemy states.
"You know what I thought when I learnt that my life should have been yours? I thought, now I've started this life, I have to make a success of it, so you'll be proud of me. Same goes for you. You have my life, Joseph. Don't mess it up".
Extremely riveting without being loud or boisterous, 'The Other Son' is a sensitive portrayal of the entire Israel-Palestine issue and in a less than two hour narrative renders the entire problem null and void. The film makes a subtle and forceful statement that in the end, life is not about any religion, country, war or subjugation. Life is about individuals. About human beings. To each his own. About living it with dignity. About having a heart big enough to hold the universe. About sharing the dreams of one another. About love, care and deep affection.
So when two babies are switched at birth, it's not about being a Jewish or an Arab merely. It's about much more. It's about motherly love. It's about the dilemma of fathers. The conflict between your love for your child and love for your country. The entire confusion of losing one's identity. And the fear of losing family, siblings and friends. Eventually, it's about identity and individuality.
The real identity of Joseph Silberg, the Arab, brought up in Israel by Jewish parents is revealed during blood tests before his military service enrolment. That one point changes the lives of not just Joseph but many others. It brings into focus all the lives that are linked with him. His parents, his little sister, the life of Yacine Al Bezaaz, the Jew, brought up in Palestine by Arab parents. But after living as 'the other' for 18 years, is it now possible for two young men to switch identities? Joseph voices his concern to the Rabbi, "So am I still a Jew?" Isn't he more of a Jew now that he has religiously followed their customs and traditions and been brought up in that environment?
And then there are the questions about being 'the other son'. Fears of leaving the loved ones, the atmosphere they grew up in, the culture, the tradition, the daily lives. It's about the fear of the mothers - of having loved one but craving for the other. The anger of the fathers - of not wanting to give up the son they've brought up thinking their own. Trying hard to accept the other and yet very softly becoming a part of the other's world.
Even as Joseph aspires to be a musician, taking after his Arab father, Yacine, ironically, is studying medicine and has French connection like his real mother, as he studies in Paris. And yet each father shares the dreams of his 'other' son and loves the other for being what he is. Therein lies the beauty of the film. It very strongly upholds the human life above all. Human aspirations and desires and humanity above every religion, strife and enmity. Even as one father expresses his anger at the entire situation by washing his car late night, the other sheds a silent tear when he delays greeting his son and prefers to continue repairing the car.
The mothers, when they first meet at the hospital where their newborn babies were accidentally exchanged, are simply mothers. The enormity of the mistake on the part of the hospital and the mere apology from the director seem superficial when compared to the impact it makes on so many lives. The mothers do find solace in one another. And that gives them the confidence to bring their children face-to-face, to share their lives and have faith in the ability to know what they want.
And there stands but one character - Bilal - that also eventually binds the whole film. He seems to become the link between the Jew son and the Arab son. His antagonism at the revelation is obvious. He silently plays the flute each time anger takes the better of him. But the young men, all of them, have been shown as being brought up well. And so when Bilal's mother talks to him, telling him how much he had loved Yacine even when he was a child, and that nothing had changed, something changes. And then when he meets Joseph, his brother by blood, he begins to understand that he is now more Jew than Arab. Also, that the whole thing about Israel and Palestine did not matter to him, as much as it did to Bilal. Joseph tells Bilal, "My identity isn't just about a certificate". And even as he goes off to drop Joseph to the border, he meets Joseph's father coming to pick his son up. The scene by the high walls and barbed wires where Bilal extends a hand after he sees Joseph being hugged by his dad, is extremely symbolic. The handshake between the two men from opposite sides is strong and firm.
Everything in the film is affirmative to individuality where borders and walls do not matter. The calmness on the face of Yacine when the soldier on Israeli border tells him to change his name and learn Hebrew; the bonding of the boys as they sell ice-cream together and Joseph shares the earnings with Yacine; Yacine continuing to play with his kid sister; the fathers meeting over coffee without saying a single word; Yacine telling Joseph as they get ready to go to a party and look themselves in the mirror "Isaac and Ishmael, Abraham's two children"; everything in the film conveys the depth of emotions without having said much. Therein lies the mastery in the craft of the director, Lorraine Levy - he makes the faces speak more than mere dialogue.
The geographical barrenness of the land, the lifestyle of Joseph and Yacine and the cultural differences between the two, and the music, further compliment the film. The pitch ranges from poignant to happy and the melodies set the mood of the film. The song that Joseph breaks into at the dining table in his Arab parents' house speaks as much of the culture as also of their bonding. It's his way of breaking the ice with his Arab father.