Although Past Life is based on real events, Avi Nesher's latest film plays unapologetically like melodrama -- a bit too much so at times. Its insistence that guilt-ridden Baruch Milch (Doron Tavory) can recite to his daughters, Sephi (Joy Rieger) and Nana (Nelly Tagar), more than 30 years later, every single word he wrote in a notebook while hiding from the Nazis in Poland during World War II strains credulity. Nesher isn't above head-slappingly obvious symbolism, either, as in the malignant tumor Nana develops, which she believes is punishment for her father's sins, or the nosebleed that Baruch's wife, Lusia (Evgenia Dodina), suffers at conveniently stressful moments in the plot.
Still, Past Life does add up to more than the sum of its heavy-handed miscalculations. It's in part a mystery procedural, as Nana and Sephi unearth a secret about their father's past that he has tried to keep under wraps for decades. But Nesher's film also works as character drama. Both daughters are still psychologically paying for their father's sins, so the quest to solve this mystery doubles as a familial catharsis. Sephi is also a musical prodigy with aspirations of becoming a composer -- a much-discouraged career prospect in Israel's patriarchal society in the late 1970s. These threads are occasionally buried under the film's desire to satisfy mystery-thriller requirements, but Nesher allows the complex emotions they inspire to peek through just enough for an inspirational finale to play more effectively than it deserves.
Avi NesherNelly Tagar, Joy Rieger, Doron Tavory, Evgenia Dodina, Tom AvniAvi NesherSamuel Goldwyn Films