Past Life: Noise and Strife, by Alexander Miller
In the seventies-set Past Life, writer-director Avi Nesher looks at the proverbial ‘war at home’ when sisters Nana and Sephi begin to question the mysteries that surround their father’s troubled experiences during the Nazi occupation of Poland. This is a film that tackles tough material, and such historically delicate content as the incalculable atrocities endured by the Jewish people will never cease to be haunting. In doing so, Past Life takes a position that dramatic license or narrative structure is going to have an air immediacy and significance; good intentions aside, the film feels as if it’s counting on its material instead of elaborating on it.
The older and rebellious Nana is an inquisitive journalist who works for a leftist magazine. Sephi, the more timid younger sibling, is a talented singer and aspiring composer attending The Jerusalem Musical Academy. Dramatic momentum takes shape when an older woman who survived World War II accosts Sephi after a concert in West Berlin, convinced that she is the daughter of a murderer. Her son, a famous composer, intervenes and explains that she went through hell during the war, and must have made a mistake. Sephi’s perturbed, but decides that the incident was a misunderstanding. Or was it?
Sephi confides in Nana who, in the spirit of journalistic integrity, investigates their father’s past, drumming up tension in the family. The crux of Past Life lies in its chemistry of the two sisters, whose distinct personalities, talents, and intelligence put them at odds with the guise of a liberated culture that is dominated by a patriarchal society. Nana and Sephi are fleshed out with resonance by Nelly Tagar and Joy Rieger, respectively, but their dynamic has a spark that we lose as the film gets in its way. There’s a good story at the heart of Past Life, taking something that is usually the crux of sprawling wartime epics and localizing the mystery into a family drama, but we lose the thrust of the story to inconsistent tonal shifts, and a few too many mismatched pieces for anything substantial to come together.
Past Life shoulders so many diversions, supporting characters, and subplots that decisive momentum in unraveling the mystery of their father’s past is reduced to declarative statements. The film is full of the kind of dialogue where every other line is a revelation, and pivotal moments occur with the ease of flipping a switch. Allegations are slung back and forth, and the truth, as Nana and Sephi know it, regarding their father are maudlin and overly literal. The conflict arrives in spurts of accusations, and the parrying of dramatic conflation is reduced to a game of “who-said-what.” It’s lethargic melodramatic furnishings wear so thin that it’s hard to keep up; or care. Lensing the actions of Nana and Sephi’s father in the “fog of war” pretense leads us to believe that his past is likely tainted, but in the shades of the dramatic structure will fall into place just enough to make him flawed but tragically understandable. Doron Davory is responsible for bringing Baruch Milch to life, and his performance has an obtuse variation where he’s either playing innocent or posturing like a Blofeld-style villain.
Avi Nesher searches through history and the atrocities of Nazism without reveling in violence and misery, an admirable quality that keeps Past Life at a level of curious exploration of what is all too frequently dehumanization in movies. Despite some qualities along the way, Past Life never gets itself together enough to be engaging, easing into a lukewarm saccharine safe zone rather than delivering something more substantial.