Past Life

Not long after seeing the underwhelming zoo-based Holocaust movie, The Boy and I trundled off to see this Israeli movie about a couple of sisters in the ’70s whose father’s backstory is squarely in the scarier parts of WWII.

And not bad looking, either, but suspicious.
They’re suspicious.

The younger sister is a musician of some prowess who visits Germany for a concert. The young composer’s mother spies her and asks her if she is the daughter of Baruch Milch. When she answers in the affirmative, the old lady curses and yells at her as “the daughter of a monster!” and we’re off to the races.

The RTs for Zookeeper were 61/80 whereas the RTs for this film stand at 81/72, and much like I think the former movie’s relatively low rating among critics has to do with its rather pedestrian handling of an interesting premise, I think this movie’s higher rating among critics has to do with its cliched story given an unusual handling.

Sephi (our heroine, played by Joy Reiger, not seen on the ‘strom since 2005’s Live and Become—when she was eleven!) returns to Israel with all sorts of questions about her bristly father, and What He Did In The War. Her older, married sister Nana (Nelly Tigar, who gave a tremendous performance in the little seen “Israeli M*A*S*H” Zero Motivation) who is estranged (or nearly so) from her father wants to dig in with the mystery with both fangs, when she’s not busy berating her husband and her nudie-mag employer (she writes left-wing radical articles for him), while simultaneously avoiding her encroaching physical problems.

They don't look even a little guilty.
Nothing to hide?

The two do dig in to things, and find their father not especially secretive, though he’s still got some issues over what went down (as one would). They learn about his first wife, and what happened there. But something doesn’t quite gel, and when a concert takes Sephi to Poland, she and her conductor pal end up in a thriller that pits the revelation of the truth against Nana’s impending doom.

The movie has a near melodramatic feel to it, which wouldn’t work except that a melodrama would’ve ended with one of the (by now heavily overused) stock, shock endings. The “shock” of this movie is its lack of shock. Things sucked, a lot of people still gots issues over it, but people who survived the bad times were not saints, and having survived them, did not become perfect or even especially enlightened.

There really isn’t an upside to the Holocaust, is what I’m getting at. And it’s kind of interesting to have a movie that respects that—even among the victims—there is a rainbow of humanity. Not every cranky dad was a murderer working for the Nazis and not every weepy mom has her story straight, and so on.

The last twenty or so minutes is an attempt to bridge the gap between people who came into conflict, with mixed results. As such, it lacks the zippiness of a “Hey, turns out dad was actually Adolph Eichmann!” This kind of subtlety makes it less of a crowd pleaser. There’s also an interesting personality change, brilliantly performed by Nelly Tigar, which again had the effect of upsetting common dramatic tropes.

The Boy and I were won over. We didn’t realize that the director, Avi Nesher, had done one of our favorite movies a few years back (The Matchmaker) or we might have gotten our hopes up too high to enjoy it. But on reflection, it’s a similar story in the sense that it tries to treat its characters as complex creatures worthy of respect, and not turn them into two dimensional stereotypes. It doesn’t quite gel like that film, but for us it worked better than Zookeeper.

Hitch would approve.
Choirs are under-utilized settings for suspense sequences.

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