Music Makes You Lose Control: Nesher Explores Skeletons in the Closet with Period Drama
Having contributed to the rise of Israeli cinema since the late 1970s, it’s still a surprise to note greater international renown has eluded Avi Nesher. If his name sounds familiar to English language audiences, it might be due to his 1993 thriller Doppelganger which starred Drew Barrymore.
Over the past decade, his titles have scored U.S. distribution and secured an ever widening acclaim at the art-house, particularly with 2007’s The Secrets, which featured French icon Fanny Ardant. Nesher returns with Past Life, one of his most polished melodramas to date, sporting first rate production design which is especially effective in the film’s sweaty set-up. But after all is said and done, this 1970s set tale may directly address some sore subjects often neglected in Israeli cinema but eventually curdles into an illogical soup of emotional misnomers. Although based on actual events, Nesher’s film plays like a missed opportunity at something more provocative.
Classically trained musician Sephi (Joy Reger) is accosted by an angry German woman following a performance in Berlin, shouting disparaging accusations about the girl’s father. Returning home to Israel, she informs her older sister Nana (Nelly Tagar) of the incident, an investigative journalist who clashes frequently with her father’s politics. The venerable doctor Baruch Milch (Doron Tavory) is a pillar of the community, but when provoked by his daughters for an explanation, he is determined to explain himself in minute detail regarding what exactly happened during his time hiding from the Nazis in Poland. When a famed composer, Thomas Zielinski (Rafael Stachowiak), son of the woman who confronted Sephi, comes to Israel with clear designs on interacting with his younger daughter, Milch denies ever more atrocious accusations, and reveals the life he abandoned following the war.
Past Life is hardly the first of Nesher’s film to address aftershocks of the Holocaust and/or musical related themes, both motifs which recall the lesbian drama The Secrets, and more prominently, his 2010 The Matchmaker, a late 60’s set drama about a young boy who goes to work for the eponymous character, a man who survived the horrors of WWII.
Nesher reunites with his DP Michel Abramowicz, who wanders freely between US studio dreck (Taken; From Paris with Love) and international art-house auteurdom. The first half of Past Life is built effectively on brooding dread, suggesting a history of abuse from rebellious elder daughter Nana (an impassioned Nelly Tagar, star of Tayla Lavie’s excellent Zero Motivation) at the hands of their reserved father (Doron Tavory, of Eran Riklis’ Lemon Tree) is one of several key instances implying just what kinds of secrets are about to be revealed. However, where this ends up is something of a disappointment, including the family dynamics, as Nesher underutilizes Evgenia Dodina (The Attack; One Week and a Day) who plays a hysterical mother prone to nosebleeds in response to conflict.
And then, Past Life eventually tumbles head long over its own feet and gets kind of silly. In the type of existential move which Kieslowski could have pulled off in the Decalogue, Tavory’s sinister patriarch decides he will re-write his war-time diary from scratch and then force his daughters to bear witness as he reads it aloud night after night in an effort to expiate his sins. And, as melodramas often go, catastrophe begins to strike, and when Nana’s health deteriorates rapidly, so does the success of the film.
The intense Joy Rieger is at first a fitting touch for the introverted Sephi, but when she takes off for Warsaw to perform in a concert directed by one of those shadowy figures from her father’s past, everything begins to seem a bit overwrought, and eventually underwhelming, despite several key discussions which take place (courtesy of Nana’s outspoken firebrand) about Israel’s occupation of Palestine.