Past Life

past life-rev

Past Life  (2017)    Orion/Drama    RT: 109 minutes    No MPAA rating (nudity, thematic elements)    Director: Avi Nesher    Screenplay: Avi Nesher    Music: Cyrille Aufort, Avner Dorman and Ella Milch-Sheriff    Cinematography: Michel Abramowicz    Release date: June 9, 2017 (Philadelphia, PA)    Cast: Nelly Tagar, Joy Rieger, Doron Tavory, Evgenia Dodina, Tom Avni, Rafael Stachowiak, Muli Shulman, Katarzyna Gniewkowska, Gilat Ankori.      Spoken in Hebrew, Polish and German w/English subtitles



 In the Israeli import Past Life, two sisters delve into their father’s past after learning he may have done something horrific during the war (WWII, that is). I can see how this would play out if it had been an American film. The filmmaker would have a more conventional route and turned it into one of those thrillers where the closer the heroines get to the truth, the greater the danger they put their lives in. There would be a “surprise” twist or two along the way. It would end in a life-or-death fight with the person who’s trying to keep their evil deeds of the past hidden. That doesn’t happen here. Writer-director Avi Nesher (The Matchmaker) has higher aspirations for Past Life. It’s really about forgiveness and the intergenerational gap as it relates to the horrors of WWII. The younger generation has the ability to look beyond the past and a greater capacity for forgiveness than the one that came before them- specifically, their parents.

 past-life-posterSet in 1977, the movie opens with an Israeli choir giving a concert in Berlin. A young girl, Stephi Milch (Rieger), steps forward and sings a beautiful solo. An older woman in attendance with her son looks at the program and something comes over her when she reads Stephi’s name. She confronts the girl after the concert, grabs her arm and says something in Polish. It’s clear that the woman is angry about something and it has to do with her father who the woman calls “a murderer”. A bewildered Stephi decides to talk over the incident with her older sister Nana (Tagar), an angry woman who already resents her father for his abusive treatment of her when she was growing up. A journalist by trade, this is just the kind of thing she can use to get even with him. She launches an investigation into his past during which she and Stephi uncover disturbing things about him.

 When the girls confront Baruch (Tavory), it doesn’t faze him at all. In fact, he offers to rewrite the diary he kept during those dark days (word-for-word, no less) and read it to his daughters. It’ll be nice to finally unburden himself of his past. Even then, he’s holding something back.

 Past Life has elements of a routine thriller like the search for the aforementioned diary that will either confirm or refute their father’s story. There’s also some question about Thomas Zielinski (Stachowiak), a famous German composer who comes to teach a class at the music academy Stephi attends. He’s the son of the old woman that knew her father during the war. He claims to be impressed by her vocal talents and brings her to Warsaw to perform. Could he possibly have other reasons for bringing the girl to an unfamiliar foreign country where she doesn’t understand the language? In these scenes, Past Life has a fair amount of tension. But like I said, Nesher has other ideas he wants to explore.

 A Biblical quote frequently cited in Past Life goes something like this: “The parents ate sour grapes and the children have rotten teeth.” I believe it means that the sins of the parents will be visited upon the children. Nana comes to believe in the veracity of this statement when she’s diagnosed with terminal cancer. She believes she’s being punished for whatever terrible thing (or things) her father did during the war. What Nesher is showing here is how the past affects the present. But there’s something else at work in Past Life, something we don’t see a lot of in American movies. More importance is placed on the characters than the events of the movie. The drama of Past Life is definitely character-driven. It’s in the way they interact and react to things and each other. Baruch, a very serious and intense type, wants to clear the air with his all-but-estranged daughters while his wife Luisa (Dodina) feels the past should stay in the past. Why dredge up all of this unpleasantness now? Nana is a profoundly unhappy person. The abuse she suffered at the hands of her father has made her a very disagreeable woman. She doesn’t get along with her husband Jeremy (Avni), the publisher of the Playboy-like magazine she writes editorials for. Stephi is a gifted singer but she really wants to compose, an endeavor discouraged by her vocal instructor who offers up this bit of advice: “Focus on your singing, not your dreams.” Instead of serving up character types, Nesher gives us real characters with distinct personalities. It’s like a breath of fresh air in this day and age of by-the-numbers screenwriting.

 I should mention that Past Life is inspired by the real Baruch Milch’s memoir “Can Heaven Be Void?” and the experiences of his daughter, real-life Israeli composer Ella Milch-Sheriff. It makes for a very compelling film that falters a little bit with some too-obvious symbolism like the finale being set against Egyptian President Sadat’s famous bridge-building speech in late ’77. The acting is top-notch across the board, especially the performances by Rieger and Tagar. It authentically recreates time and place with vintage clothes and hairstyles- e.g. Thomas Zielinski resembles Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie. The music is absolutely gorgeous. The ending is especially moving with the shifts of certain characters towards reconciliation. In the end, Past Life is more concerned with something much bigger than exposing a villain (if that’s indeed what he is). It’s about the things I listed in the opening paragraph. It’s really an extraordinary film. It’s one well worth seeking out. 

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