Uneven but ultimately effective, convincing in mood and emotion despite its melodramatic plotting, Avi Nesher’s “Past Life” is straight-ahead filmmaking heightened by a connection to a pervasive Israeli reality not often found on film.
A veteran filmmaker whose best-known works include “Dizengoff 99" and the underrated “The Matchmaker,” Nesher is also a child of Holocaust survivors, a situation that makes him, he says in a revealing director’s statement, one of “the very people who constitute the vast majority of the population of my homeland.”
But being the child of survivors does not mean you know the specifics of how your parents managed to survive. “There is the official version, but there are also rumors,” Nesher writes. “I have have never dared ask my parents about this particular part of their history and my very reluctance to do so has always troubled me.”
“Past Life,” which Nesher wrote and directed inspired in part by the experiences of Israeli composer Ella Milch-Sheriff, is best at conjuring that existential dread, the anger and fear that comes from not knowing exactly what your parents’ actions were, what moral norms they might have transgressed just to survive and, more than that, not being sure you even want to know.
Set in 1977, the story as presented is overflowing with grudges, betrayals and cascading revelations. But if the plot has too many potboiler elements, the characters are considerably more convincing in their disturbed emotions. Truly, as someone pungently says, “the parents ate sour grapes, and the children have rotten teeth.”
The story begins in West Berlin, with a visiting Israeli chorus performing before an appreciative German audience.
But in the reception afterwards, a woman who can barely contain her anger comes up to the chorus’ featured soloist, Sephi Milch (Joy Rieger), and asks if her father is Dr. Baruch Milch. When the answer comes back yes, the woman all but throttles her while exclaiming, “You are the daughter of a murderer.”
Though the woman’s son, who turns out to be celebrated German choral composer Thomas Zielinski (Rafael Stachowiak), tries to excuse the event by saying “my mother went through hell during the war,” Sephi is understandably shaken.
Back in Israel, we are introduced to father Baruch (Doron Tavory), an unbending, humorless type who means it when he says “I know nothing of god’s mercy,” as well as his placating wife, Lusia (Evegenia Dodina).
We also meet Sephi’s sister, Nana (Nelly Tagar), a firebrand who is forever going toe to toe with her father over everything from his past ill-treatment of her to his current right-wing politics.
Nana and her husband, Jeremy (Tom Avni), run a Playboy-type magazine that combines political articles with stories like “Swedish Girls Are Importing Sex to the Kibbutz.” It’s no wonder that she savages Jeremy as “the garbage man of the Israeli press.”
It’s also no wonder that Sephi is reluctant to confide her fears about her father to her walking time bomb sister. But confide she does, and Nana, who bears a considerable grudge against Baruch, insists that nothing will do but a relentless investigation of the past.
Sephi, who still lives at home and worries about her father being damaged if anything bad is made public, also has other things to worry about.
Though her main work is as a singer, Sephi has designs on being a classical composer, ambitions her tyrannical chorus director does his best to quash. Daring her to name a successful female composer, he insists she “focus on singing, not on dreams.”
Not surprisingly, Nana’s determination to dig deeply into their father’s history wins the day, but neither of the sisters, not to mention anyone in the audience, would be able to imagine all the twists and turns that investigation would uncover.
But whenever you’re tempted to lose patience with “Past Life,” the film’s core emotional conviction pulls you back into the proceedings. “Why bring up the past,” Lusia pleads to her daughters at one point. The answer, as “Past Life” makes clear, is because there really is no choice.
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.
Playing: Laemmle’s Royal, West Los Angeles, Playhouse 7, Pasadena, Town Center 5, Encino.