2016, NR, 109 min. Directed by Avi Nesher. Starring Nelly Tagar, Joy Rieger, Doron Tavory, Evgenia Dodina, Tom Avni, Rafael Stachowiak, Muli Shulman.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., June 23, 2017
An Israeli drama inspired by true events, Past Life begins by gesturing at the Pentateuchal concept of the sins of the father visited on his children, then coaxes out a kind-of mystery from that premise. Which sins, exactly? And are we even sure they’re sins?
In 1977, on tour in Warsaw, choral student and composer-in-training Sephi Milch (Rieger) is approached after a concert by an older Polish woman who is visibly distressed. Sephi doesn’t speak her language, but the translation chills her to the bone: “Your father is a murderer.” Back home in Israel, soft-spoken Sephi reluctantly tells her older sister Nana (Tagar) about the encounter. The brash and bullying editor of a leftist magazine mixing politics and pornography, Nana’s instincts are to investigate their father’s experiences in the Holocaust, something he’s refused to discuss with his daughters. But it’s not just a journalist’s intuition compelling Nana; it’s the still-fresh remembrance of his abusive behavior that has her convinced of his guilt. All that’s left – for Nana, at least – is to determine the crime.
Playing their father, Baruch Milch, Doron Tavory can’t make the necessary inroads on a character intentionally scripted for most of the film as a cipher. But Rieger and Tagar capture the intimacy and competitive sniping of siblings, and they’re each stunning in opposite roles – Rieger, anxiously straddling a fault line and flinching at every breeze; Tagar, snarling and swanning in Nana’s disco duds. The film captures the era well, in costume and set design and stale-air ambience, the universal language of cigarette fug equally at home in Nana’s Tel Aviv writers’ garret and an underground speakeasy behind the Iron Curtain. (Stick around for the end credits, an especially spot-on evocation of the age.) The film’s music – an original score by Cyrille Aufort, plus diegetic snatches of Sephi’s school choir in rehearsal and a climactic performance (written by Sephi’s real-life counterpart, Ella Milch-Sheriff) – are just as essential to the mood-building.
Ultimately, it’s the kind-of mystery that undermines Past Life’s emotional kapow. You can hardly fault writer/director Avi Nesher for trying to tease suspense out of the story, but he establishes early an ominous tone and stubbornly holds steadfast to it. Mangling Chekhov’s famous gun maxim, Nesher’s camera glances over a knife in the film’s final minutes. An intimation of danger all wrong for what comes next, it’s a terrible misdirection for a film that, by then, has movingly journeyed beyond the sins of the father to explore a new generation’s efforts at reparation and reconciliation.