In many Eurocentric period pieces, a coming-of-age narrative is often utilized to brandish nostalgia for its own sake, relishing a bygone era instead of periodizing it to produce revisionist histories or, at least, seek interrogative conclusions. John Boorman’s Queen and Country is the latest example, but even heralded, beloved works like The River or Au Revoir les Enfants are guilty of envisioning childhood as a precious period of transition, thus condensing national trauma into the maladjustments of either a family or a group of adolescents. A Borrowed Identity continues the trend, but there’s a key difference in director Eran Riklis’s film, which charts the plight of Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom), a young Palestinian-Isreali who gets accepted into a prestigious boarding school in Jerusalem, only to find he’s not welcome because of his origins. Riklis tempers moments of youthful discovery with a perpetual reminder of ethnic conflict, one which places Eyad in a constant state of distress, as sexual desire and intellectual curiosity are subordinated to a crippling racial prejudice that dictates his daily terms for existence.
Few films of this nature take on such an array of social issues, especially where getting laid is actually fairly low on the list of priorities, though Eyad finds companionship in Naomi (Daniel Kitsis), a Jewish girl whose family would rather hear she’s “a lesbian, a drug addict, or has cancer” than that she’s dating a man of Arabic descent. Based on a pair of autobiographies by Sayed Kashua (who also pens the script), the film largely takes place in the late ’80s, which Riklis puts to pointed cultural use by having Eyad and Naomi see both Die Hard and Wings of Desire. While neither character offers commentary on the films, the scenes play as imperative junctures for reconciling each of their plights. In essence, an antihero like John McClane has nothing on Eyad, who might not be fighting terrorists, but continues to grapple with a period as a young boy where he believed that his father, Salah (Ali Suliman), was one. Riklis likewise suggests that even the existential plight of Bruno Ganz’s angel turned human from Wim Wenders’s film remains a cinematic leisure, a safe zone of alterity that’s far removed from even the most innocuous moments of Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The film allows space for fond remembrances, but relegates them to the first act with Eyad as a young boy in Tira, whether trying to get the television working with his brother and father, or coming up with the answer to a local trivia challenge. He’s labeled a “boy genius,” and pesters the nearby grocer for making a 73% profit on cheese sales, which Eyad discovers with some quick math skills. Riklis shoots these scenes as brightly lit, balanced moments of familial warmth, but it’s not idyllic or played for yucks, which is especially resonant once the film’s entire vision of desolate, but still hopeful, survival is made clear.
The second half of the film threatens to undermine these strengths a bit, as Eyad’s relationship with Jonathan (Michael Moshonov), a classmate with muscular dystrophy, and his mother, Edna (Yaël Abecassis), takes a sentimental turn that pits Jonathan’s physical deterioration against Eyad’s fragmenting cultural identity. Moreover, a sexual tension between Eyad and Edna is never fully explored, even though Edna is insistent that Eyad should move in to prevent her from losing her mind. As Eyad’s relationship with Naomi crumbles after her parents discover their intimacy, the film struggles to locate detailed significance for each entanglement and settles into a rather confortable rhythm, albeit one of impending sadness and death. That’s what prevents A Borrowed Identity from being truly perceptive: It lacks a formal rigor to match its thematic heft, preferring a digestible naturalism that serves its plot points in plain, uncomplicated sight. Nevertheless, Riklis keeps the proceedings from fully deflating with an ending that offers no easy outs for Eyad, as darkness creeps in, with the glow of a burning cigarette the only guiding light the film has left to offer.