Thursday, January 12, 2017

NYJFF ’17: Past Life

Pop music is all very catchy, but it is out of its depth responding to events of great enormity. However, classical chorale music is perfectly suited for grand elegiac concerts. As a composer of such music, Ella Milch-Sheriff would find inspiration within her own family. A somewhat fictionalized version of their story unfolds in Avi Nesher’s Past Life (trailer here) which screens during the 2017 New York Jewish Film Festival.

Sephi Milch (as she is called in Nesher’s screenplay) is a chorale student in an Israeli conservatory who harbors ambitions of composing, but is too mousy to stand up to the sexist dean. During a concert in West Germany, Milch is rather stunned when an elderly woman accosts her, accusing her father, Dr. Baruch Milch of murder. To make it even more awkward, she happens to be the mother of famous German-Polish chorale composer Thomas Zielinski.

For various reasons (including her father’s often excessive discipline), Milch cannot dismiss the encounter, so she takes her sister Nana Milch-Kotler into her confidence. Having an even more fraught relationship with their father, the leftwing journalist assumes there must be some truth to it. With varying degrees of reluctance and enthusiasm, the two sisters start investigating their father’s past. As word of their inquiries reaches Dr. Milch, he offers to reconstruct the lost diary of the years he spent hiding in the Zielinski farm. However, the combination of Milch-Kotler’s lingering doubts and accumulated bad karma might produce tragic results for the Milch family.

The significance of setting the film in 1977 should not be lost on anyone, but Nesher does not belabor the parallels between the thaw with Sadat and the efforts of Sephi Milch and Thomas Zielinski to reconcile their parents. Indeed, it is richly detailed period production that evokes both the good and the bad of the era. For added authenticity, the haunting piece performed during the climax really was composed by Ella Milch-Sheriff.

Joy Rieger is rather remarkable as the initially naïve and submissive Sephi Milch. Her expressive face is like an open book. Nelly Tagar brings more attitude and angst as the razor-sharp but profoundly sad Milch-Kotler. Doron Tavory deftly walks a fine line as Dr. Milch, establishing his severity as a parent, but also a deep sense of his fundamentally decent but scarred psyche. Yet, Rafael Stachowiak might be the film’s X-factor as the constantly surprising Thomas Zielinski.

With Past Life, Nesher further burnishes his well-earned reputation as a filmmaker of great sensitivity. It is also a characteristic example of his affinity for historical dramas that reflect the Israeli national experience through more or less average people (this is particularly true of The Matchmaker). Nesher and his frequent cinematographer Michel Abramowicz (who also shot the first Taken film) have a knack for making a picture look nostalgic, but also darkly moody. Recommended for those who appreciate thematically sophisticated dramas and chorale music, Past Life screens Sunday (1/15) and Monday (1/16) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYJFF.