Past Life

Once more unto the Holocaust, this time to dark family secrets in Israel in 1977.

“How well do you really know your father?” That was the tagline from Music Box, a 1989 Jessica Lange movie worth revisiting. It also works for Avi Nesher’s Past Life. Both films tell Holocaust-adjacent stories about a daughter who uncovers her father’s wartime cache of secrets. While Lange’s confidence in her father’s moral being slowly disintegrates, the Milch sisters — Sephi and Nana — doubt their dad and his dour demeanor from the start.

Set in 1977, the story is inspired by the lives of the Israeli composer Ella Milch-Sheriff and her family. Joy Rieger plays Sephi, a college voice major and budding composer. Rieger not only resembles the actress Asia Argento, she also projects a formidable sense of determination. But her antagonist in the film turns out to be not her father but her brilliant, combative older sister. Nana (Nelly Tagar) is certain Sephi is their father’s favorite child. Her stinging barbs and memorable put-downs make poetry out of something as mundane as sibling rivalry. (Where does all her bile come from?) She blames it on her father’s repressed emotional life, which, she feels, warped into something ugly each time he lied or omitted information about the young man he used to be. The director carefully metes out the revelations, leaving this question open-ended: After all he had endured, could he have done otherwise?

Past Life
The film is not rated.
Opens Friday at the Opera Plaza Cinema.

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