Near the end of Past Life, there is a concert featuring a piece of music called “The Time Will Come.” It’s not a particularly subtle title for the piece, given that the foundation of the film’s plot is the slow and continuous unraveling of decades-old secrets, but Past Life is not a particularly nuanced story. And that’s all right. The elements of loyalty, family, guilt, regret, and absolution in the film are all fairly straightforward, but they’re braided together in such a way that the movie is still compelling even if it’s not terribly clever.
As Past Life opens, 20-something Israeli Sephi Milch (Joy Rieger) is performing as part of a choir in West Berlin. At the reception following the concert, she’s confronted by a woman screaming at her in Polish about Sephi’s murderous father. Distressed by the experience, Sephi tells her older sister Nana (Nelly Tagar) about it when she returns home. Nana has a confrontational relationship with their father, Baruch, and is quick to believe there could be some truth to the woman’s accusations. The two work to unravel the mystery, and Sephi is eventually sought out by the son of the woman from the reception confrontation, a famous composer who is tied to Sephi’s musical career ambitions as well as the core mystery.
Given the variety of plot lines and cinematic tones employed by writer/director Avi Nesher, it’s difficult to summarize Past Life as belonging to one particular style or genre. It is a mystery, though the attempt to build suspense often feels contrived. Past Life is also a drama and a tragedy, not only with its plot rooted in the Holocaust, but with thematic elements that suggest that children must sometimes pay the price for the failures and sins of their parents.
There’s a lot going on. Too much at times, and things get unwieldy, but the core of the film and the aspect that works best is the examination of familial relationships. Sephi and Nana are one of the more intriguing pairs of sisters I’ve seen on screen recently. They’re clearly two women who love each other but who don’t like each other, and it’s an interesting reminder of what’s unique about the familial connection: without a blood bond to keep them together, they’d have no reason to be a part of each other’s lives and stories.
The parent/child relationships are interesting as well, particularly in their static nature. Sephi is as inclined to forgive their father without evidence as Nana is to condemn him, and even as the truth about Baruch comes out, neither seems inclined to change her mind.
In fact, Nesher’s script suggests throughout that relationships can’t be pushed to change or evolve. It’s true of Baruch and his daughters, Sephi and Nana, and most directly, of Baruch and the person who feels most directly impacted by his past actions. There’s an interesting question to explore here about forgiveness and who it’s for. What happens when someone forgives himself, or at least makes peace with his own actions, before the person who was most hurt by him?
Unfortunately, a lot of these questions go unexamined because it takes so long to unravel the true story of exactly what happened decades before. Some odd plotting choices and superfluous misdirection slow the story down, making it feel a bit directionless. With those pieces trimmed out, the movie could have been tighter and more focused on its strength: uncommon consideration of common theatrical themes.