'Past Life' reveals the shattering legacy of wartime tragedy
By Diane Carson
Israeli writer/director Avi Nesher introduces his absorbing Past Life with a jolt that propels the narrative. Sephi Milch is singing in West Berlin, 1977, with her Jerusalem-based choral group. At the reception following the performance, an elderly Polish woman, whom Sephi does not know, violently grabs Sephi's arm while shouting that she sees the daughter of a murderer.
Thus begins for Sephi and older sister Nana a tortuous search into their father's past. A Holocaust survivor himself, now a gynecologist, Dr. Baruch Milch has inflicted a painful childhood upon Sephi and Nana. Some subplots offer counterpoints to their quest for truth, others reinforce the psychological and emotional impact of Baruch's wartime actions. For example, despite entrenched sexism and discouragement, Sephi composes uplifting music. By contrast, Nana, editor of a sexually exploitive political magazine, faces an illness, convinced it is divine retribution for her father's actions. In the political backdrop, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat works for peace with Israelis, positing contemporary themes of reconciliation and forgiveness in the face of troubling conflict.
Based on real events, Nesher draws from Baruch Milch's actual memoir, Can Heaven Be Void? and the daughters' experiences. He inserts philosophical observations, including the comment that when "Fathers eat sour grapes, the children's teeth are set on edge."
As Sephi and Nana, actresses Joy Rieger and Nelly Tagar present their characters' contrasting personalities beautifully, sparring like real sisters. A fine supporting cast adds texture as does Yishai Steckler's soundtrack. In press notes, he cites his decision to use a Jewish liturgical Hebrew piece from the 17th century in the introductory concert. Later he integrates music colliding with events, resulting in a multilayered mix of ideas and emotion.
Past Life is the first of a trilogy in which writer/director Avi Nesher probes the legacy of the past for its profound impact on present lives. Based on this first installment, I'm eagerly awaiting the second chapter, Valley of Ghosts, in production. Until then, Past Life screens in Hebrew, German, and Polish with English subtitles and with some English at Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Cinema.