The Other Son: Isaac, Ishmael and Pudd’nhead Wilson
“The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has come to a virtual halt,” announced Marc Schneier, who played host to the New York premiere of The Other Son on Wednesday. This, according to him, is why Barack Obama and Mitt Romney neglected to mention the peace process at Monday’s foreign policy debate, despite mentioning Israel over 30 times. “I would respectfully suggest that the powers that be watch this film,” Schneier said. “It portrays the human aspect of this ongoing and terrible conflict.”
While Barack and Mitt have nothing to learn, policy-wise, from The Other Son, Schneier’s right to suggest the film is valuable as an exercise in human empathy. As Israeli teen musician Joseph (Jules Sitruk) prepares for military service, a blood test reveals he’s not his parents’ biological son; instead, he was accidentally switched at birth with Yacine (Mehdi Dehbi), an aspiring med student who’s been raised as a Palestinian in the West Bank. The discovery forces the boys to reassess their values and identities, as they realize the people they’ve been taught to hate are, in fact, themselves.
With the exception of Yacine’s fundamentalist brother—an increasingly popular stock character in Middle Eastern movies (see: Circumstance)—the film is refreshingly free of stereotypes. But there’s no shortage of ham-fisted dialogue (“As you see, our villages are still imprisoned, our land cut in two”) and heavy-handed symbolism (Joseph and Yacine are “Isaac and Ishmael, the children of Abraham,” as Yacine explicitly points out). The second act sags as the characters emote while staring out over melancholy vistas, and the feel-good ending reveals the film’s obvious didactic intent. And then there’s the whole babies-switched-at-birth plot device, that staple of daytime drama.
Nevertheless, those looking for deeper philosophical insights in this movie will find them. The switched-at-birth scenario, contrived as it is, allows director Lorraine Lévy to explore ways in which the oppressed is sometimes better off than the oppressor. When Yacine tells Joseph that, had they not been switched, “I might have been a jerk like you, obsessed with clubs and clothes,” the viewer is reminded of Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, another switched-at-birth tale in which the black boy who’s raised white gets corrupted by his power, while the white boy who’s raised black is saved by his suffering from moral bankruptcy.
In its original French, the film’s title—Le Fils de L’Autre (literally, The Son of the Other)—is also philosophically loaded. L’Autre calls to mind Levinas and other continental philosophers who used the term to designate the process by which a group excludes and subordinates an “Other.” So, when Joseph learns he’s not an Israeli but a Palestinian, he realizes he’s been “othering” Palestinians all his life. If you bear this resonance in mind, his epiphanic utterance—and the film as a whole—will hit you hard: “You mean, I’m the Other? And the Other is me?” Yes, Joseph. Exactly.
The Other Son opens Friday, October 26, 2012.