A group of friends at a Jerusalem retirement home construct a machine for self-euthanasia in order to help a terminally ill pal in “The Farewell Party,” a poignant, provocative dramedy from Israeli helmers Sharon Maymon and Tal Granit. Boasting a dream cast of septuagenarian talent, a finely honed visual sense and superbly ironic comic timing and dialogue, the pic pits the ethics of assisted suicide against the right to die with dignity. Theatrical returns in Israel should be, er, out of this world, while offshore, positive word of mouth should smooth the way for this compassionate handling of inherently depressing material.
The opening scene cleverly riffs on the underlying theme of who has the right to play God, as retired inventor Yehezkel (Ze’ev Revah) phones an ailing nonagenarian, and speaking through a device that infuses his voice with a celestial grandeur, claims to be the Almighty and tells her not to give up on life. It’s typical of the kindly Yehezkel, who, with his inveterate tinkering, tries to come up with new and original ways to improve the lives of his neighbors and his pretty, nurturing wife (Levana Finkelshtein), who is starting to show early signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
At the moment, however, the plight of their dear friends Yana (Aliza Rozen) and Max (Shmuel Wolf) is more distressing to the couple than Levana’s diagnosis, which they keep secret. The terminally ill Max is in the hospital and obviously suffering. Indeed, Max begs Yehezkel to put him out of his misery.
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This initial setup offers plenty of opportunity for black situational comedy as Yana and Yehezkel join forces with retired veterinarian Dr. Daniel (Ilan Dar), a would-be member of the Hemlock Society, who will provide the tranquilizers, and graft-loving former police detective Raffi Segal (Rafael Tabor), who will clean up the evidence. Yehezkel’s contribution is a Rube Goldberg-like contraption that will allow Max to off himself by pressing a button. Levana is horrified and calls them all murderers.
But after Max passes, rumors about the machine leak out and the friends find themselves besieged by requests from those looking for a way to end the suffering of their loved ones. While corrupt cop Segal sees opportunities in the euthanasia business, the others are more bound up with the moral dilemmas. In the meantime, as Levana’s condition becomes worse, she begins to feel that she may have misjudged her husband and her friends.
While the co-helming/writing team of Maymon and Granit may be working in a style and genre very different from Michael Haneke’s “Amour” or Runar Runarsson’s “Volcano,” the central dilemma of how to cope with a loved one’s suffering is similar. Although breaking up the emotional drama with comic and absurd elements makes the difficult issue more accessible to the audience, it remains to be seen whether “The Farewell Party” will draw the niche crowd attracted to “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” or their younger kin.
With its humanity and heart, the story could be set anywhere, and, like Maymon’s previous feature, “A Matter of Size,” is ripe for remake. But the snappy dialogue captures the irony and unique cadences of Jewish humor with lines such as “They’re keeping him alive as though dying was a crime,” and “I’m willing to kill for you and you say I don’t love you enough.”
Although the helmers occasionally dabble in obvious visual humor, such as showing a closeted gay man actually in a closet, there are many other inspired moments. Among the best: a clever trick to fool hospital monitors, a room full of cigarette smokers remembering a friend that died of lung cancer, and multiple scenes with a young cop unable to give the group a well-deserved traffic ticket. Perhaps the most unique and moving scene is a surreal musical number that provides a note of grace as the living and the dead sing of their longing for a better place.
The appealing cast consists of icons of Israeli comedy who have also been mainstays of film, theater and TV for many decades; they all dig into their dramatic and literally flesh-baring roles with gusto. The attractive tech package makes fine use of the special light and muted colors of Jerusalem as it contrasts the comfortable environment of the retirement home with the cold, clinical space of the hospital. And speaking of the dear and departed, the pic reps one of the final credits of the late, lamented German producer Karl Baumgartner.