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 understood.
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 sons.
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.