Film Review: PAST LIFE (Israel/Poland 2016)***

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past life.jpgPast Life tracks the daring late 1970s odyssey of two sisters – an introverted classical musician and a rambunctious scandal sheet journalist – as they unravel a shocking wartime mystery that has cast a dark shadow on their entire lives.

Director: Avi Nesher
Writer: Avi Nesher
Stars: Nelly Tagar, Joy Rieger, Doron Tavory

Review by Gilbert Seah

 Director Avi Nesher (THE MATCHMAKER, TURN LEFT AT THE END OF THE WORLD) sets the stage in the film’s first scene when Sephi (Joy Rieger) performs (she is a tenor in a choir) in Berlin. An elderly woman ( Katarzyna Gniewkowska) reproaches her after, in public, accusing her of being a murderer’s daughter.

Back home, she relates the incident to her feisty sister, Nana (Nelly Tatar), a writer for her husband’s journal and she insists of finding the truth of what happened in the war with their father, Dr. Baruch Milch (Doron Tavory).

The film is a period piece, beautifully mounted with vintage cars and sets and set in the year 1977. It is a spellbinding tale that tracks the trans-European odyssey of two sisters as they try to unravel a wartime mystery that has cast a shadow on their lives. Sephi is an aspiring composer, determined to succeed in the male-dominated classical music world. Her older sister Nana is a scandal-sheet journalist and aspiring playwright. The daughters of Holocaust survivors, the two are bent on uncovering the truth behind a dark family secret.

The entire film hinges on what the secret is. To keep the film interesting from start to end, Nesher inserts a rift between the siblings.

Sephi is content not to unravel the skeleton in the closet while Nana is the opposite. Nesher paints a more interesting character in Nana as she is one hot female, always searching, always wanting the truth which damages her relationship with her husband who owns the journal she writes for. To make matters worse, Nana believes that he flirts with Sephi. This makes the story more down to earth though the tension feels forced at times. Nesher also inserts a segment that involves the timely discovery of the father’s document in the archives just before the starting of a concert. This tactic is obvious to heighten tension though it compromises the authenticity of the story.

Nesher’s film is also clearly devoid of humour. The light touches in dialogue come mainly from Nana’s lines, especially the ones in the hospital or seeing the doctor. But rather than being funny, they come across as cynicism.

Neshe’s strength are in the dramatic parts. The film’s best segment is unexpectedly the meeting in the park at night of the girl’s mother (Evgenia Dodina) and the elderly woman at the concert at the film’s beginning. The mother’s begging of her forgiveness for her and her husband is both moving and riveting.

The film was inspired by Dr. Baruch Milch’s book Can Heaven Be Void?, which is based on a diary he kept during WWII, and the extremely difficult decisions he had to face during the times. Nana in real life edited the father’s book while the sister Sephi composed the orchestral piece to exorcise their demons.

Nesher is himself a Holocaust survivor, so making this film must be a story he wanted to tell from his heart. PAST LIFE eventually turns out to be a powerful film about the importance of forgiveness.


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