Israeli writer-director Avi Nesher’s profoundly moving “Past Life” is set in 1977 Jerusalem, where two sisters, the daughters of Holocaust survivors, investigate a taboo topic: the mystery of their difficult father’s experiences in Poland during World War II. In his best film yet, Nesher (“Turn Left at the End of the World,” “The Matchmaker”) confronts a trauma — the burden of history — that is still very much part of the Israeli present and deeply rooted in the collective subconscious. As the sisters lead them to desperately seek a path to forgiveness and peace for all concerned, Nesher expertly builds suspense while echoing and reinforcing their quest with the film’s hauntingly beautiful musical choices. Offshore theatrical exposure for this vital, accessible, character-driven drama may be limited to arthouses and Jewish-interest events, but festival play should be robust.
Despite growing up in what their gynecologist father, Dr. Baruch Milch (Doron Tavory, moving), terms a normal world, neither Nana (Nelly Tagar), a combative liberal journalist and all-around prickly personality, nor younger sister Sephi (Joy Rieger), an aspiring classical composer with an angelic singing voice, feel that they had an easy or happy home life. Their father was a stern disciplinarian who butted heads with Nana in particular. So when Sephi is accosted by a Polish woman (Katarzyna Gniewkowska) after a concert in West Berlin, who claims that her father is a murderer, she is disturbed and reluctantly tells Nana about it, but not her parents.
Nana, who bears a grudge for the beatings her father dealt out during her youth, rises to the challenge of this provocation like a true private investigator. But as the siblings uncover surprising facts about their father’s past, these lead the way to further questions and additional turmoil within the family. Meanwhile, Nesher adds further resonance to the action by layering in some significant subplots that come together with the main story in moving ways and by deepening the characterization and relationship of the two sisters, both of whom are struggling to liberate their own unique artistic voices in a patriarchal world.
The film begins and ends with a concert of poignant choral music. The German composer and conductor Thomas Zielinski (Rafael Stachowiak) attends the first and conducts the second. As the son of the distraught Polish woman who knew Sephi’s father, he, too, comes from a family whose many unrevealed secrets have clouded his present life. When he visits the Jerusalem Music Academy as a guest lecturer, his path once again intersects with that of Sephi. His mentorship not only helps solve her family mystery, but also enables her to rise above the disdainful Academy professor (Muli Shulman), who dismisses her talent and ambition with, “After all, has there even been a truly significant or well-known female classical composer?”
Nesher, himself the son of Holocaust survivors, based his gripping screenplay on the heart-rending wartime diaries of Dr. Baruch Milch, which were eventually edited into the book “Can Heaven Be Void?” by his elder daughter, Dr. Shosh Avigal, who inspired the Nana character. Meanwhile, Ella Milch-Sherrif, the inspiration for the Sephi character, composed several pieces for the film. Nesher’s decision to set the film in 1977 is also significant: It is the same year that the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat decided to part ways with past history and bravely embark on a peace process with Israel. This courageous breaking free from the shackles of the past is also what the sisters seek to do, and like Sadat they discover that their quest exacts a tremendous price.
Nesher’s films are always well cast, and “Past Life” is no exception. Particularly outstanding are the women playing the siblings. Tagar (“Zero Motivation”) perfectly channels Nana’s intellect, spikiness, lack of boundaries. and longtime jealousy over the younger sister whose annoying concerts she was always forced to attend. Rieger, a stage and television actress with a beautiful, open face and stunning figure, represents a real find. As their mother, the invaluable Evgenia Dodina (“One Week and a Day”) flits from room to room like a distracted ghost, unable to witness the pain her husband feels as he recreates his wartime diary for the girls, and ultimately summoning all her resources to beg forgiveness from the elderly Mrs. Zielinski.
Frenchman Michel Abramowicz, Nesher’s longtime cinematographer, favors intimate, almost claustrophobic interiors that mirror the trapped feeling of the characters. The rest of the tech package is polished, with the period costumes by Inbal Shuki worthy of note. Also critical to the film’s affect and deserving kudos are the orignal score by Cyrille Aufort, soundtrack production by Yishai Steckler and sound design by Gil Toren.