from tiff: ‘past life’ is a moving morality drama

Past Life, Avi Nesher’s highly anticipated follow up to 2013’s The Wonders, is a moving moral fable about how we face and process the demons that can define our lives.

The year is 1977, and Sephi Milch is a young woman studying vocal performance and composition in a Tel Aviv university. A trip to West Germany leads her to a shaking encounter with a woman who, recognising her last name and language, labels her father a murderer. Unaware of what could have led to this, she alerts her outspoken older sister Nana of what she has heard, and together they band together to visit scenes of his wartime past in an attempt to uncover the truth.

In anyone else’s hands, the story of these two sisters could have wound up being a melodramatic and distractingly over the top post-war drama. But Nesher, who has a true understanding of the significance of this story, has the rare ability to make films about families that make you feel as though you’re part of them. His work, rarely crafted with mere observation in mind, takes us right up to the dinner table here, allowing us to involve ourselves in the conversations that are tearing this family in two. Nesher combines Sephi’s soaring artistry with the melancholic subject matter of the story in a way that gives the film an extra dynamic. Elsewhere, his treatment may be fairly standard, but a pair of electric leads elevate everything. Sephi and Nana, played Joy Rieger and Nelly Tagar respectively, are integral to the film’s success. When paired together the two feel like some of Pedro Almodóvar’s most charming doyennes, delivering some seriously weighty work here.

Avi Nesher has surpassed the need to vie for critical approval; his previous work has already solidified that. Instead, what Past Life shows is that the Israeli auteur has the ability to make full-bodied dramas that make fine use of brilliant actors. We’re hoping to see more of them, particularly Rieger, in the future.

★★★★

Past Life had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival 2016