Writer/director Avi Nesher’s ‘Past Life’ struggles under the weight of its own ambition. The filmmaker wants to make a suspenseful mystery thriller, but also hopes to create a complex character drama, a thoughtful exploration of a dark past, a stirring melodrama, and an art film driven as much by symbolism as narrative. All of these ambitions rub up against each other and overlap in ways that are frequently satisfying and often frustrating.
Things kick off in 1970s Berlin at a performance from an Israeli choir. An older woman named Agnieszka (Katarzyna Gniewkowska) recognizes one of the young singers, Sephi (Joy Rieger). She approaches her after the performance, and even though neither speaks the same language, an aggressive exchange overcomes the communication gap. Agnieszka knew Sephi’s father and claims that he was a murderer.
Back in Israel, we meet the father, Baruch (Doron Tavory). He’s strict and stuffy, but also a compassionate doctor. He couldn’t possibly be a murderer, could he? Sephi just can’t get the accusation out of her mind, though. She confides in her older sister, Nana (Nelly Tagar). She’s a journalist, so she should have no trouble getting to the bottom of things. Unfortunately, Nana uncovers a few truths that she wishes she didn’t know. The sisters confront their father, and he not only admits his past, but spills out a long confession about how he survived the Holocaust by hiding with a Polish family and not exactly escaping with clean hands. That’s a tough pill for the young women to swallow and both end up in full-on existential crises. Sephi flees to Berlin and Nana gets cancer. In other words, it’s just your typical pick-me-up feel-good story.
As you may have gathered, ‘Past Life’ isn’t exactly an easy watch. The barebones plot just discussed leaves out many other revelations and hardships. The film is designed to depress, but is also driven by mystery and suspense. Writer/director Nesher spent much of the 1990s cranking out direct-to-video thrillers in Hollywood (‘Timebomb’, ‘Doppelganger: The Evil Within’), so lurid thrills are his stock-in-trade. He has no problem pushing buttons to ramp up drama. While much of ‘Past Life’ is subdued, the film explodes frequently. It’s beautifully shot in harsh shadows and soft lights. The images seem to be concealing secrets and Nesher loads them with metaphors and symbolism. That can get heavy-handed, like a series of convenient nosebleeds and awkward montages drawing labored connections. The film might be dealing with high-minded ambitions, but it’s often executed with blunt force filmmaking. There’s no ambiguity despite all the gray levels of morality. It would be almost impossible to watch the film without picking up on all of Nesher’s gratingly obvious goals.
‘Past Life’ also crams in a far too many subplots and themes. The movie has long passages dedicated to Sephi’s choir ambitions and career that are less much dramatic than all the death-related secrets being passed around. However, because Nesher is determined to hammer home a metaphoric connection, those scenes remain. It can often feel like watching a miniseries condensed into two hours, but at least most of those scenes are strong. Performances are remarkable throughout. While the script might lurch into melodramatic excess, the entire cast finds an admirable level of subtlety with which to deliver the insanity. Somehow you buy it, and ‘Past Life’ kind of works despite all of its insane excesses and diversions.
Nesher’s effective yet unfussy and focused shooting style subdues the wild story along with the actors. The suspense and mystery provide satisfying pull while the more delicate character drama serves up a moving and warm heart. ‘Past Life’ is as potent and calm as it is ridiculous and overblown. Perhaps the script was a draft or two away from containing all of Nersher’s ambitions in a more satisfyingly elegant manner. It’s hard to say, but at least what the filmmaker lacks as a writer he makes up for as a director. ‘Past Life’ is a flawed feature, but it’s also the type of ambitious and character-driven drama that isn’t supposed to exist anymore. Those starving for such things will take what they can get.