You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Festival Review: ‘Past Life’

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.

Nelly Tagar, Joy Rieger, Evgenia Dodina, Doron Tavory, Tom Avni, Rafael Stachowiak, Muli Shulman, Katarzyna Gniewkowska. (Hebrew, English, Polish, German dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5787384/

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.

Festival Review: 'Past Life'

Reviewed online, Chicago, September 2, 2016. (In Toronto — Contemporary World Cinema). Running time: 109 MIN.

Production: (Israel) A United King Films release of a Metro, Artomas Communications production, in association with Ars Veritas Prods., Sunshine Prods. with support from Rabinovich Foundation, Jerusalem Film & Television Fund, Ministry of Culture and Sport, Israel Film Council, Yes, Keshet. (International sales: Bleiberg Entertainment, Beverly Hills.) Producers: David M. Milch, David Silber, Moshe Edery, Leon Edery, Avi Nesher, Ruth Cats. Co-producers: Ella Milch-Sheriff, Elad Naggar.

Crew: Director, writer: Avi Nesher, inspired by Dr. Baruch Milch’s autobiography “Can Heaven Be Void?” Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Michel Abramowicz. Editor: Isaac Sehayek.

With: Nelly Tagar, Joy Rieger, Evgenia Dodina, Doron Tavory, Tom Avni, Rafael Stachowiak, Muli Shulman, Katarzyna Gniewkowska. (Hebrew, English, Polish, German dialogue)

More Film

  • John Hodges

    Jax Media Taps A24 Co-Founder John Hodges as Head of New Film Division

    TV production powerhouse Jax Media is expanding into film and tapped John Hodges, one of the founding partners of A24, as its new head of film. “I’m thrilled to be joining the team at Jax,” Hodges said. “Theirs is a potent brand that I’ve admired for a long time, and their reputation as innovative partners [...]

  • Hong Kong's TVB Plans OTT Boost,

    Hong Kong's TVB Plans OTT Boost, Sets 'Court Lady' With Huanyu

    Hong Kong’s Television Broadcasts is set to boost its OTT platforms locally and abroad with new packages and initiatives targeting the Southeast Asian market. The city’s biggest broadcaster has also renewed its partnership with China’s Huanyu Entertainment following the wild success the two enjoyed last year with court rivalry drama “Story of Yanxi Palace.” The [...]

  • Blue Planet II

    Documentaries Show Strong Signs of Growth in Global Markets

    Nearly 40% of exhibitors at FilMart this year are currently involved in documentary films. This year, there are 290 such exhibitors from 26 countries and regions, an increase of 30% from the year before, and 24 nonfiction titles in screening sessions, nearly double last year’s 13 titles. The market launched its “Doc World” section in [...]

  • Palanquin Offers New Business Model for

    Palanquin Offers New Business Model for East-West Productions in SVoD Era

    For Westerners making movies in Asia, logistics can be problematic. And, for Asian filmmakers able to navigate local conditions, screenwriting for international audiences and access to markets can still be stumbling blocks. Veteran producer and executive Guy Louthan (“The Mist,” “Raising Arizona”) is now developing a business that straddles East and West, deploys American production [...]

  • 'The Fall,' 'Out of Crimes' and

    Oriental Intl. Debuts at FilMart With Six New Films and Classic Fare

    Oriental Intl. makes its FilMart sales debut with a line-up of six new titles and a library of 20 arthouse classics and shorts. The firm is the Hong Kong branch of Chinese state-run radio and TV broadcaster CRI-CIBN’s smart TV division. The company has five employees but only one employee based permanently in Hong Kong. [...]

  • Ethnic Minorities in Spotlight at Hong

    Ethnic Minorities in Spotlight at Hong Kong Asian Project Market

    Historically, ethnic minorities around the world have suffered, and 2019 sees no change in this regard. A brace of HAF projects highlight some of the problems faced by them. From Iran, Arsalan Amiri’s horror/black comedy “Zalava” is set in a village terrified by demonic possession, where a young, agnostic police officer arrests challenges local beliefs [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content