To speak about philosophy’s reflection upon reality, Hegel often used the
metaphor of the owl of Minerva, which took his flight only in the twilight.
Perhaps the affirmation of the great idealist thinker could be applied to
the reality of fatherhood/motherhood. It could be thought that only when
these relationships undergo a crisis, their meaning and value become better
The only way to reflect upon these relationships is not just conceptual
analysis.. It’s quite possible to have recourse to other means, such as
novels, dramas, and even films. In fact, images allow us to confront
interpersonal relationships with a unique immediacy, expressivity, and at
the same time, profundity. We are thus able to understand the plots,
dynamics, and relational tensions through images better than in a well
thought-out essay. I believe this reflection occurs in two relatively
recent films:The Other Son (t.o.: Le Fils de l’Autre), and Father and Son.
These films apparently have such a quite a similar argument, that you may
be tempted to think that it’s enough to have seen one to know the other.
Both films start from the same dramatic situation: the accidental exchange
of new-born babies and their upbringing by another parents. The discovery
of this mistake brings about an upheaval in family relationships. In
reality, however, besides the small thematic nucleus, these movies present
considerable differences, be they in perspective and in context.
According to its French Jewish director Lorraine Lévy, The Other Son doesn’t have as its primary aim the analysis of
family relationships, but rather the relationship between two peoples:
Israelis and Palestinians, who are geographically neighbors but
historically enemies. The director enters into this story of ancestral
hatred with humility, without wanting to impart any lessons. She therefore
tells an ordinary story that unearths passions, tensions, and even a
glimmer of hope. The film Father and Son, on the other hand, set
in modern Japan, faces the crisis of paternity head on, in an effort to
find a solution.
The Other Son,
or better the two other sons are: Joseph, the Israeli that is actually of
Palestinian origin, and Yacine, the Palestinian that is actually of Israeli
origin. The revelation of their identities takes place during a medical
examination prior to military service in the Israeli army. Joseph is
discovered not to be the biological son of his supposed parents because
when he was just born 18 years ago, he was mistakenly swapped with Yacine,
a Palestinean from the occupied West Bank territories. The news creates an
earthquake in both families, forcing everyone to ask themselves about their
identity, prejudices, political and religious convictions, as well as the
meaning of their relationships. Even if not sought out by the director,
perhaps the film’s central theme is indeed the role of identity in
relationships and vice versa.
The identity of the two young men, victims of a dramatic exchange, is
completely flipped upside-down. Joseph is the son of an official in the
Israeli army. Regardless of being quite different from his father (he takes
drugs and dreams of becoming a musician), he still wants to follow his
father’s footsteps, and thus presents himself as a volunteer for military
service. Yacine, on the other hand, incarnates his father perfectly. Not
only is he intelligent and loved by his entire family (which has spared no
little sacrifice to send him to study in Paris), but he is also quite
generous. He wants to study medicine in order to help his people with his
profession. The anagnorisis, or recognition of their true
identities seems to destroy these boys’ dreams and bonds. The fathers,
regardless of the love they have had for their children, don’t want to
accept them now as their children, not only because they share not blood,
but they share not even race. Perhaps the greatest rejection occurs in the
case of Yacine. The man who was until then his father begins to see him as
the son of an Israeli enemy. Despite internal struggles and doubts,
Joseph’s father seems to have a lesser hatred for the son of the enemy.
Nevertheless, both fathers seem to put blood, race, and the history of
their people over the affection they had for their sons. The voice of
racism and hatred for the enemy is even greater in Yacine’s brother. He
goes from idolizing his younger brother to complete intolerance of his
person, to the point of cutting off all communication with him.
In contrast to the fathers, the mothers represent the triumph of affection
from the bonds created with their alleged children during all those years
of love. They are the first to accept that the exchange is a reality, and
they are the first to open their maternal wombs towards the real son and
also the son of the other, even amidst the pain they feel for having been
deceived for so long.
The fathers respond with silence and incapacity to overcome prejudices,
evident in the scene where they sit facing each other with coffee, nervous
and silent, or in heated disputes over historical and political issues. The
women, on the other hand, establish a true friendship through a bond that
is created between them. Each one knows she is the mother of other son.
Thus, after having overcome the first phase of pain, they try to draw their
respective husbands closer to their children.
A blossoming friendship between Joseph and Yacine also contributes to the
reconciliation. While their fathers argue, Joseph and Yacine seek refuge in
a garden trying to understand what is their identity and what their fate
will be. Their encounters become more and more frequent, till every one
eventually decide to enter into the other’s family. The boys discover the
life that each one should have expected, to then reenter the life they fell
into in the first place.
The last residues of intolerance, represented by the older brother, fall as
well when Joseph’s father, the Israeli official, manages to obtain a pass
to enter Tel-Aviv so that the family of Yacine can shop and work in that
city. In this way, the bonds between the families are strengthened.
However, the complete transformation occurs when a fight breaks out among
drunks on a beach, and Joseph is stabbed and brought to the hospital by
Yacine and his older brother. There, at Joseph’s bedside, the three
experience their true brotherhood.
The moral of the story is that brotherhood between these two nations is
possible, as long as personal identities are not built upon that which
divides them, such as race, hate and the long history of oppression. When
identity is built upon that which can unite them, like getting to know the
other person and the bonds of friendship that can be established,
brotherhood is possible. As demonstrated symbolically, no barrier nor
centuries of hatred can separate the love of a mother for her child, be it
the child she bore, be ii the child she raised.
The context of Father and Son is neither racial nor political. It
is centered purely on the family. The first family to come into the scene
is Ryota’s, a successful architect that incarnates Japanese virtues:
hard-work, order, and self-control. One day, he and his wife Midori are
called by the director of the hospital where their son Keita was born six
years ago. He tells the parents that they had been victims of an exchange
of newborns. Little Keita is actually the biological son of another couple.
They are raising their real child, along with two little brothers, in
disastrous economic conditions and with quite a different style of
parenting. The other father, Yudai, is quite the slacker who lives off of
small electrical repairs, but nevertheless knows how to be a friend to his
The contrast between these two fathers could not be sharper, as is
underscored by their reactions toward the dramatic news. Ryota sees his
whole world crumble before him. His stellar career as an architect becomes
reshaped, but above all, his relationships with his wife and Keita are
shaken to the core. Little by little the viewer begins to realize that
behind the façade of perfect father and husband, there are many cracks. His
relationship with Midori is poisoned by the lack of genius in the child.
How is it possible for such a good and intelligent father to have a son
with such mediocre abilities? Though he never outwardly confesses it
(perhaps not even to himself), he holds it against his wife for having
given him such a child. Therefore, once he finds out that Keita is not his
son, the words, “Now I understand everything!” escape from his lips.
Midori, who loves and will always love Keita as her son, is filled with
pain and anger for the hardness of her husband Ryota.
Perhaps it can be said that what is made manifest in Ryota’s comment,
besides his egoism, is one of the gravest illnesses of contemporary
individualism: narcissism. Ryota wishes that his son would be in his image
and likeness, because he considers himself to be perfect. The root of
Ryota’s individualism is the lack of fatherhood, which according to the
film’s director Kore-eda Hirokazu, has its roots in the relationship he
must have had with his own father, who was also more concerned about blood
ties than affective bonds. In fact, when Ryota asks his father’s advice on
what to do, the response is a given: he must favor blood and disown the
little Keita. Ryota’s mother, on the other hand, affirms, “children are
those you raise”.
Ryota finds himself before a terrible decision to make: choose the
biological child, where the law of blood directs him, or the child he has
raised and loved for six years? After some anguish, he decides to follow
the advice of his father and exchange Keita for his biological son, with
the secret hope that this son will resemble him more. The relationship of
fatherhood, as the director seems to suggest, does not depend on the desire
of the father, but of the son. For this reason, regardless of how hard he
tries to win over the affection of his genetic son, Ryota fails. The child
flees from his natural parents to return to the ones he loves. Ryota
reaches the point of feeling incapable of being a father.
Two events take place that help him correct his mistakes and return to the
right path. One is the conversation he has with Yudai, the other father, in
whom he discovers the secret of paternity. “No one better than you can be a
better father for your child.” Ryota begins to understand that to
be a father is not like planning and having success with your child in the
same way that occurs with a profession. It is rather loving him, as your child.
The second incident that transforms not only the mind, but also the heart,
of Ryota is when he discovers the photographs that the little Keita took of
him and his wife unbeknownst to them. Through these images, Ryota
experiences the loving gaze of his son towards him. This is what makes him
a father; and his awareness of his own paternity stirs him to fight to win
back Keita’s wounded heart.
Perhaps the only drawback of this film is the impression it gives that
paternity refers solely to filiation, given that the mothers remain simply
a shadow in the film. As opposed to what happens in The Other Son,
Midory hardly has a role in the discovery of Ryota’s paternity. This is
perhaps due to an overly stereotypical view of maternity- a maternity that
is given once and for all, that is passive, where the woman is inferior of
the husband. From this point of view, the maternal figures of the Israelian
film are much more realistic, and are therefore able to influence their
husbands’ acceptance of their own fatherhood. It could be however that
Kore-eda Hirokazu emphasized fatherhood more than motherhood because
fatherhood is much more in crisis today.
From this perspective of parenthood, both films reflect the same reality in
different ways. The child is neither a right, nor a way to perpetuate one’s
own lineage, nor a means to satisfy one’s own desires. The child is a gift.
Therefore, only when the child is loved as he is, parents truly become a
father and a mother to him.