Israeli cinema has existed since its creation in 1948, although it has never had the influence of other foreign film culture over critical acclaim and blockbuster hits. As their film industry expands over time, this has changed a little, but this also parallels the nature of Israel’s own history, which always looks back as it moves forward. One of the primary driving psychologies is the attempt to rebuild from the Holocaust while being capable of being honest about their own mistakes. And sometimes Israeli art explicitly covers that.
Past Life comes from writer/director Avi Nesher and is inspired by the book “Can Heaven be Void?” by Israeli writer and Holocaust survivor Baruch Milch. The movie takes place in 1977 as the world has changed greatly since the end of the Second World War. We follow music student Sephi Milch (Joy Rieger) as she performs with her choir from Israel at a concert in Berlin. She is talented, given one of the primary solo pieces of the performance.
But in the audience, an older woman (Katarzyna Gniewkowska) notices something odd and confronts Sephi after the show. But neither speaks the other’s language, and although Sephi speaks English, the older woman does not. The old woman shouts something at Sephi which is translated by talented young composer Thomas Zielinski (Rafael Stachowiak) of something awful — Sephi’s father is a murderer.
This begins a sort of unraveling back home where Sephi lives with her parents, including the harsh, strict patriarch Baruch, who is a good doctor but does not communicate emotionally with his family. After Sephi tells her older sister, journalist Nana (Nelly Tagar) about the encounter, Nana decides to investigate the truth of the matter.
Terrible secrets are uncovered, and odd connections revealed. When things begin to start looking bad for their father, he decides to reveal the truth to them, but this just makes things worse. At the same time, Sephi wants to be a composer but is being dissuaded by her sexist music instructor. And then Thomas Zielinski appears in her classroom.
This is an interesting sort of dramatic tale of a kind of harsh thriller, where the thrills are based on secrets and pain. There is tension about faith and illness, about success and failure, and about the truth behind a life of pain. The movie culminates in a quickly cut back and forth sequence that doesn’t entirely transmit the stress it wants, but in general the drama of the film rings true. It is nice to see a film that has a lot on its mind, even if not everything gets paid off.
I found the acting from the lead actress Joy Rieger to be very good, making it easy to keep track of her thoughts and roiling emotions while reading the subtitles. The acting of Baruch didn’t ultimately feel as natural to me, and Rafael Stachowiak sometimes was a bit too creepy when I am certain he wasn’t meant to be.
The story had a few bumps along the way, but the pacing to the final reveals seemed to work well overall, and this fits the mold of the classic “psychological drama” genre type. Haunted by the past, hoping for the future. The movie doesn’t figure anything out, but it tries to imagine hope despite tragedy and loss. I can appreciate the sentiment.
Past Life has a running time of 1 hour 49 minutes, and is not rated by the MPAA.