MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Past Life (החטאים)’ is a wonderfully unique look at the effects of a post-war world

Never feeling stale or already seen, Avi Nesher's international drama is a look at the part of World War II history forgets

| June 25, 2017

World War II movies are a dime a dozen these days, with many different studios, producers and filmmakers looking to put their stamp on the ever growing catalog of this über-specific sub-genre of film, it can be easy to tire of the genre quite quickly. Even with major filmmakers like Christopher Nolan soon to have his own stamp on it in “Dunkirk,” there hasn’t been a film that has really broken the sub-genre open in the way that “Schindler’s List” did in quite a while (the only thing that has was “Son of Saul,” arguably one of the best films of the 21st century thus far). But perhaps a look inside the war isn’t what film needs right now, what seems to be the best thing, at least in the case of “Past Life (החטאים),” is to look past the confides of 1939-1945, but to the effects that this devastating war took on the world over 30 years afterwards.

Starting off in West Berlin in January 1977, “Past Life” starts on a choral concert headlined by soloist Sephi Milch (Joy Rieger), daughter of Israeli Holocaust survivor, Baruch Milch (Doron Tavory). After her concert, Sephi is confronted by an older woman, asking of her relation to her father, to which she is nearly assaulted by the woman, claiming her father is a murderer. After returning to Jerusalem, Sephi tells her older sister, Nana (Nelly Tagar), who immediately wants to look into the matter, as she has a distaste for their father, whom she views as cruel and hypocritical. While Sephi is more hesitant, the girls pry into their father’s past life in the war to check the validity of the woman’s claims. Meanwhile, life looks to intertwine the stories of everyone involved.

To put it simply: “Past Life” is a fabulous film. While the film can’t actually readily be described as a World War II film, the way in which it plays on the war in a new and unique way is something I’ve looked for in a film for a while now. This is a film that’s all about balance, and it finds it really well. The film is dark, but never depressing; serious, but never without its moments of humor; cold, but never distant. This film finds a balance in many of the things that quite a few filmmakers seem to go overboard on in their war films. This is a film that knows and plays on the life that goes on outside of these girl’s quest for the truth. There is sickness, opportunity, love, heartbreak, tragedy, etc. that follows these girls outside of the business with their father, and the way in which the film knows how to show both real life without sacrificing the dramatic heft of the film’s main plot is quite impressive.

As I’m not particularly well-versed in Israeli cinema, I don’t have any prior films to base the quality of the performances off of rather than their objective quality. Rieger is a wonderfully talented young actress that brings a sort of weak ferocity to the role of Sephi that really paints her into a three dimensional character that films like this often sacrifice for shock value. She’s damaged, but she’s never taken out, this is a character who really wants to know who she is, and fights hard throughout the entirety of the film to find it. Tagar as Nana, on the other hand, seems to be the complete antithesis to Reiger’s Sephi. This is a self-assured, confident, sometimes inappropriate, incredibly opinionated and volatile young woman being molded by the über-political nature of 1970s Israel. A staunch supporter of the Palestinian people (right on), she clashes with her father on many subjects related to public policy, but finds much in the way of love for her little sister. Tagar reminds me much of a young Andrea Riseborough, with a classic sense of elegance undercut by a real sense of a fiery personality. These two girls could not be any more different, as both of their performances couldn’t be either, but it makes the effect all the more impressive.

Directed by veteran Israeli filmmaker Avi Nesher, this film oozes 70s at every subtle turn. Sure, the film isn’t shoving disco music and afros in your face, but Nesher really seems to know and execute a real sense of what 1970s Israel really seemed to be like. This atmosphere creates much of the greatness of “Past Life” in itself, as the film has an incredibly assured sense of space and time that never feels overzealous or overreaching. Bathed in neutral tones, “Past Life” still is an incredibly beautiful film that has a real unique sense of movement about it that I haven’t seen in any other foreign film before. Nesher doesn’t constantly feel the need for obvious close-ups or great detail in his direction, but rather a sense of emotional and spiritual resonance that really finds a way into your heart one way or another. This isn’t a film that pulls any punches, but rather feels organically flowing and true to its vision.

While the film is primarily based in Israel and spoken in Hebrew, there is a wide span of travel that makes “Past Life” feel much more like an international film than that of a film from a single nation. With Polish, German and English being spoken, “Past Life” gives a fascinating look at how the effects of World War II have moved past borders and nations into something that has touched every human in its own way. This isn’t a particularly huge aspect of the film, but this sense of scale that it gives the atmosphere is one that really paints the post-war world, more specifically post-war Europe in a way that nearly all films dealing with the matter fail to accomplish properly.

If I have to dock the film for anything, I would only complain that the English dialogue in the film does come across a bit stilted at times, as if there wasn’t a native English speaker to translate the script properly. While this is far from egregious, and most people probably won’t care to notice it, a bit more finesse in these notably few scenes would’ve been a nice touch up on the film.

“Past Life” is how you indirectly look at the effects of war through film. This is a difficult, if not entirely unapproachable film that balances everything it seeks to hold up incredibly well. Bolstered by two killer lead performances from Rieger and Tagar, this film has an emotional punch to it that isn’t oppressive, malevolent or depressing, but rather that of a horrific wonder. It’s a film that handles its mystery in an organic way, rather than that of sensationalism that many films of this nature seem to go for. And with Nesher’s immense sense of atmosphere and scale complementing the film’s powerful storyline, “Past Life” just might be the best film of 2017 that you haven’t heard of. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

4.5/5

Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films/Orion Pictures

Directed by: Avi Nesher
Starring: Nelly Tagar, Joy Rieger, Doron Tavoroy, Evgenia Dodina, Tom Avni, Rafael Stachowiak, Muli Shulman, co-starring Katarzyna Gniewkowska, Gilat Ankory, Orna Rotberg, Lenny Cohen, Avi Kornick, Keren Tzur, Arie Tchercher.
Runtime: 109 minutes
Rating: Not Rated
Now playing exclusively at Regal Park Terrace

Orion Pictures and Samuel Goldwyn Films present, a Bleiberg Entertainment presentation, a Metro Communications/Artomas Communications/Ars Veritas Productions/Sunshine Films production, “Past Life (החטאים),” a film by Avi Nesher

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Category:Arts and Entertainment, Film

Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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