'Past Life': Film Review | TIFF 2016

Past Life Still 2 - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Past Life Still 2 - Publicity - H 2016

A heavy-handed but handsome historical thriller.

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.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
Production companies: Metro Communications, Artomas Communications, Ars Veritas, Sunshine Productions
Cast: Joy Rieger, Nelly Tagar, Doron Tavory, Rafael Stachowiak, Katarzyna Gniewkowska, Evgenia Dodina, Tom Avni
Director-screenwriter: Avi Nesher, inspired by the memoir
Can Heaven Be Void? by Baruch Milch
Producers: David Milch, David Silber, Avi Nesher, Moshe Edery, Leon Edery, Ruth Cats
Cinematographer: Michel Abramowicz
Editor: Isaac Sehayek
Production designer: Eytan Levi
Music: Cyrille Aufort
Sales: Bleiberg Entertainment

Not rated, 110 minutes