The year is 1977, and no female has ever been a renowned classical music composer. Sephi Milch, a very determined and talented young woman, aspires to a career as a classical composer, but she knows the odds are against her. In spite of this, she is dead set on changing the course of history and succeeding in the male-dominated classical music world.
Her struggle with the burden of history is not only limited to her artistic life – as the daughter of troubled Holocaust survivors, she also has to deal with a sudden revelation from the past that threatens to tear her family apart. Nana Milch – Sephi’s older sister and bitter rival, a scandal sheet journalist and an aspiring playwright – considers this startling revelation an opportunity to free herself from the stranglehold of her parents’ past. Sephi is weary of her sister’s tendency to look for trouble, but in this case she has no choice but to join Nana’s quest for the truth.
Film Review for Past life
Israeli director Avi Nesher turns a real Holocaust memoir into a multi-generational family mystery in this Toronto premiere.
The aftershocks of the Holocaust stir up fresh emotional anguish more than 30 years later in Past Life, the latest TIFF world premiere from veteran Israeli director Avi Nesher (The Matchmaker, The Wonders).
Adding dramatic layers to the real wartime memoir of Dr. Baruch Milch, Can Heaven Be Void?, Nesher’s cinematic treatment is clumsy and overwrought in places, but pushes all the right buttons as a middlebrow mix of heart-tugging family saga and gripping mystery thriller. Beyond film festivals, slick production values and evergreen historical themes could translate into theatrical traction.
West Berlin, 1977: Aspiring young composer Sephi Milch (Joy Rieger) gives the stand-out vocal performance in a concert by a visiting Israeli choir. But celebrations turn sour during aftershow drinks when Sephi and her older sister Nana (Nelly Tagar) are accosted by Agnieszka Zielinski (Katarzyna Gniewkowska), an elderly Polish woman who loudly accuses their father of murder during World War II. Agnieszka’s son, Polish-German composer Thomas (Rafael Stachowiak), apologizes to the startled visitors and drags his mother away.
Back home in Tel Aviv, Sephi and Nana turn private investigators on their gynecologist father, Holocaust survivor Baruch (Doron Tavory), delving into his murky wartime past. The situation is complicated by Nana’s prickly relationship with her disciplinarian dad, mirrored in her fiery left-wing politics and angry claims that the Holocaust has become a cynical catch-all excuse for Israeli government policy. A light subtext of sibling rivalry also adds tension.
Initially horrified at dredging up traumatic events he has long tried to bury, Baruch finally relents and shares the full account of his desperate months hiding from the Nazis in a Polish cellar. But his confessions throw up fresh questions about shifting identities and family secrets. Following a musical mentorship post in Israel, Thomas invites Sephi to perform her Holocaust-inspired work in Poland, awakening nightmarish memories in her parents: “In Poland you could disappear and nobody would know,” they protest. Meanwhile, Nana is diagnosed with a serious illness, which she interprets as karmic payback for the sins of her father.
Structured as a suspense thriller, Past Life drenches its big, complex themes in a thick sauce of thumping melodrama. The performances are histrionic, the tone soapy and the scattering of English-language lines amidst the Hebrew, German and Polish are often laughably leaden. The final resolution also feels a little too neat, with redemption and reconciliation all round. The horrors of the Holocaust cannot be healed with Hollywood endings.
That said, this polished period piece is consistently pleasing to eye and ear, while the punchy plot is never boring. The two female leads also have strong screen presence and share an agreeably combustible chemistry as sisters with very different emotional triggers. Michel Abramowicz’s rich-hued cinematography and Eytan Levi’s retro production design contribute to a handsome overall package. Nesher, himself the child of Holocaust survivors, intends Past Life to be the opening chapter in a thematically linked trilogy.
Past Life Movie Poster
Directed by: Avi Nesher
Starring: Nelly Tagar, Joy Rieger, Doron Tavory, Evgenia Dodina, Tom Avni, Rafael Stachowiak, Muli Shulman, Katarzyna Gniewkowska, Orna Rotenberg, Gilat Ankori
Screenplay by: Avi Nesher
Production Design by: Eitan Levi
Cinematography by: Michel Abramowicz
Film Editing by: Isaac Sehayek
Music by: Cyrille Aufort, Avner Dorman, Ella Milch-Sheriff
Distributed by: Orion Pictures, Samuel Goldwyn Films
Release Date: June 2, 2017