Burrowing backward from 1970s Israel to 1940s Poland, “Past Life” is a family melodrama in the guise of a murder mystery. Strong performances and the shadow of the Holocaust lend the story poignancy. But writer-director Avi Nesher has adapted a real-life memoir — Baruch Milch’s “Can Heaven Be Void?” — into an overly contrived dramatic scenario. It’s also something of a tease.
The events begin in 1977 in West Berlin, where Israeli singer Sephi Milch (Joy Rieger) is performing with an Israeli choir. The soprano, the daughter of Polish Jewish Holocaust survivors, delivers a solo that impresses Thomas Zielinski (Rafael Stachowiak), a young German composer of Polish descent. But his mother (Katarzyna Gniewkowska) can’t see past the name “Milch” on the program. At a post-concert reception, the older woman grabs Sephi’s arm and calls her father a killer.
Sephi could just ask her dad, gruff gynecologist Baruch (Doron Tavory), what the woman meant. But that would eliminate about half of the movie. Instead, Sephi consults her older sister Nana (Nelly Tagar), who works for a magazine that’s half leftist polemics, half nudie photos. Nana has suffered more than Sephi from their father’s severity and is inclined to believe the worst of him.
Then Nana is diagnosed with cancer, which she attributes to their father’s guilt. (Hey, it’s the ’70s.) Sephi needs to solve the mystery — not just to ease her curiosity, but also to heal her sister.
Conveniently, Thomas comes to teach at the Jerusalem conservatory where Sephi is a student. They become close, personally as well as musically, and he invites her to perform in Warsaw. This gives Sephi an opportunity to do some detective work in Poland about her father, whose life under the Nazi occupation was intertwined with the Zielinski family.
These links encourage Nesher, an Israeli-American filmmaker who made a half-dozen films in Hollywood, to engage in tricky crosscutting: from an underground music club, for instance, to a bedroom; between an archive and an emergency room; and, occasionally, into the violent past. The edits are more dramatic than the glib story’s outcome.
In addition to its main themes of intergenerational strife and historical aftershocks, “Past Life” ponders Israel’s prospects and women’s liberation. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat is about to negotiate for peace, while Thomas encourages Sephi to become a composer, a course her professor insists is open only to men. The film is bolstered by abundant music, mostly (but not entirely) classical. Some compositions are by Ella Milch-Sherrif, Sephi’s real-world counterpart.
Although he’s essential to the plot, Thomas isn’t a very interesting character. The movie’s emotional core is the relationship dynamic shared by Sephi, Nana and their father, all of whom are played with depth and fire. Baruch has hidden his experiences from his daughters, hoping that they can be, as he puts it, “normal.”
“I hate secrets,” protests Nana, the journalist. But as “Past Life” demonstrates, solving history’s puzzles is not always revelatory.
Unrated. At area theaters. Contains a medical emergency, a child in jeopardy and partial nudity. In Hebrew, English, German and Polish with subtitles. 109 minutes.