First released in 2016, Past Life is an Israeli film about two sisters, their father, and their efforts to understand and reconcile with the past.
The year is 1977 and Sephi Milch (Joy Reiger) is determined to become a renowned classical music composer. While she has the talent and the drive, she’s also a young woman trying to find success in a field that has always been male-dominated. As a woman, she is expected to just sing and leave the composing for the men. One of her condescending teachers even smirks about how he “allows” her to take a composition class, even though everyone knows that her cause is hopeless.
As a singer, she and her class are invited to perform in Berlin. She goes to Germany, despite the objections of her father, Baruch Milch (Doron Tavory), a Polish Holocaust survivor. Following her performance, Sephi attends a reception. While her best friend admires the handsome, tuxedo-wearing men standing around them, Sephi point out that, just 40 years ago, all of those men would have been wearing swastika armbands and giving each other the Nazi salute. Sephi approached by a woman who appears to be slightly older than her father. The woman says that she recognized Sephi’s last name. She asks if Sephi is the daughter of Baruch Milch. When Sephi says that she is, the woman tells Sephi that Baruch Milch is a murderer.
Back in Israel, Sephi tells her sister, Nana (Nelly Tagar), about what happened. While Sephi wants to put the matter behind her, Nana is intrigued. Nana is a journalist who works for the type of underground newspaper where the walls are decorated with pictures of Lenin. Nana is as disorganized as Sephi is driven. Whereas Sephi keeps her emotions under control, Nana always seems to be shouting at someone and it’s rare that she’s seen without a cigarette. In fact, it turns out that the main thing that Nana and Sephi have in common is that they both have very mixed feelings about their father.
Baruch, we learn, was hardly the perfect father. He put constant pressure on his daughters when they were growing up and was seen as being a fearsome and temperamental figure. While Baruch’s disciplinary style led to Sephi being determined to succeed, it also led to Nana becoming bitter with her father. Nana goes as far as to describe him as being abusive and she speculates that he very well could have murdered someone when he was younger. (She points out that Baruch used to perform illegal abortions as proof that their father is not a squeamish man.) As Sephi and Nana discuss it, they realize that they really don’t know much about their father’s early life in Poland or what he did to survive the Holocaust. It’s something that, until now, Baruch has never discussed withe either of them.
Even when their father finally gives them an explanation, Nana suspects that he’s lying. Meanwhile, Sephi’s attempts to move on are complicated when she meets and falls in love with the son of the woman who accused her father of being a murderer….
Past Life is a frequently enthralling film, one that is all the more powerful because it’s based on a true story. It’s a film that not only inspires us to wonder about how much we truly know about the people who are the closest to us but it’s also one that forces us to consider the different ways that people deal with trauma. Every character in the film is, in one way or another, dealing with the past. Some do it through anger and some do it through denial. Baruch’s story becomes almost a Rorschach test. The two sisters each interpret it in their own way and each has their own reaction, one that is based not only on what Baruch says but also on their own unique relationship with him. The film also works as an examination of sisterhood. Nelly Tagar and Joy Reiger are instantly believable as sisters, capturing both the love and the annoyance that comes from their closeness.
Past Life is available on Prime so watch it the next time you want to be challenged.