It’s almost too obvious and too inevitable to be real. A nice Franco-Jewish family in Tel Aviv and a less-well-off Arab quintet discover that their sons were dropped into the wrong arms. I know. I can’t believe it, either. It took this many decades for a full-blown, Israeli-Palestinian switched-at-birth drama. Making “The Other Son” must have been like discovering the website URL you assumed was taken is actually free. The movie is shameless and simple yet solemn at the same time.
The writer and director Lorraine Lévy understands that if you’re going to do this, to make a film that distills the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a matter of mistaken identity, you have to do it all the way. She doesn’t bother with any buildup. She gets the discovery and disclosure out of the way rather quickly. Odith and Alon Silberman (Emmanuelle Devos and Pascal Erbé) find themselves seated in a hospital director’s office next to Leila and Saïd Al Bezaaz (Areen Omari and Khalifa Natour). It was 1991 in Haifa during the Gulf War. A Scud missile caused chaos at the hospital, and, apparently, confusion in the NICU.
After the announcement, the fathers depart separately, in shock, and the mothers remain seated. Odith turns her chair toward Leila and the two share a heartbroken moment. There was every reason to suspect we were in good hands with Lévy before this. That scene confirms it. A few minutes later, the parents break the news to the sons, and the larger existential crises proceed. Joseph Silberman (Jules Sitruk) wants to know if he’s still Jewish. The weepy rabbi has only bad news. In a bombarded West Bank, Yacine Al Bezaaz (Mehdi Dehbi) has just come from college in Paris on his way to medical school. He takes the news better than his truculent older brother Bilal (Mahmoud Shalaby), who hits the roof with anti-Israeli disgust.
Given how reasoned a lot of the writing is here, everything to do with Bilal feels silly. He’s cartoon petulant. But Shalaby, like the rest of the cast, has a kind face that lets you know he’ll come around. He’s just playing what’s on the page. Even so, all of the acting is fantastic. Devos is rarely asked to be this emotionally specific, this grounded and direct. Sometimes with her, you wonder whether it would kill her to do more in a movie than coast on the irony created by the friction between her heavy facial expressions and her blithe demeanor. Usually, it works — her version of whimsy wins you over. This performance feels like something new. The maternal crisis challenges all her softness and grace. Odith is optimistic but confused and angry, not at the situation but at Alon’s mismanagement of it, at the way it changes Joseph and warps their family. Devos doesn’t overdo it. This is her strongest, most complete acting in years.
Lévy, meanwhile, doesn’t reinvent anything here. As the switched sons cross checkpoints and forge bonds with their other families and the families forge bonds with each other, the movie becomes another enlightened attempt to see the upside of an impossible political situation. It’s done persuasively enough that you wonder how you’d feel under similar circumstances.
There is one problem. Joseph looks more like his false parents than his biological ones. And Yacine looks too much like his other brother not to be related. This, of course, means that for the movie to work credibly it must be seen purely as a work of political commentary, as allegorical melodrama. That’s effective enough. Lévy takes her own shamelessness so seriously that we do, too.Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.