“The Farewell Party” not only thinks the unthinkable, it laughs at the unlaughable.
Nominated for 14 Israeli Academy Awards, this is a gentle but pointed work that walks a particular line to create a specific tone, a consistently warm and comic film about an unmistakably serious subject.
As the literal translation of the film’s Hebrew title (“A Good Death”) indicates, this is a moving yet always amusing piece about the end of life. More specifically, it’s about a group of senior citizens who decide to make that end come just a little bit faster for some of their friends only to have the entire enterprise quickly spiral out of control.
Written and directed by Sharon Maymon and Tal Granit and characterized by the unmistakably mordant Israeli sense of humor, “The Farewell Party” succeeds as well as it does because the core dilemma always feels real and the filmmakers take great care to see that the inevitable emotions put into play are never overdone.
In this they are helped by an exceptional cast of veteran Israeli comic actors, here venturing into somewhat more serious territory. At the top of the list is Ze’ev Revach, who won Israel’s actor award playing Yehezkel, the ringleader of a geriatric death squad that turns into the gang that couldn’t kill straight.
Yehezkel, along with his wife, Levana (Levana Finkelshtein), are residents of a very comfortable retirement home in Jerusalem. When we first meet him, the most serious thing he’s doing is pretending to be the Almighty in a phone call to a fellow resident, telling her that, regrettably, at the present moment “there are no vacancies at all” in the next life.
Things become more serious when we meet Yana (Aliza Rozen, who was a memorable wife in Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote”). Her husband, Max (Shmuel Wolf), is dying of an irreversible illness and is in terrible, ever-present pain. He asks his good friend Yehezkel to “help me to get it over with,” and Yehezkel goes about complying even though his wife, Levana, is morally opposed to the idea.
A lifelong tinkerer and inventor, Yehezkel comes up with a Rube Goldberg-type contraption, connected to one of the electrical timers that observant Jews use to turn off appliances on the Sabbath, that will allow Max to give himself a fatal dose of tranquilizers.
Yehezkel also goes about recruiting members from fellow retirement home residents for a kind of assisted suicide club, a group to help him do the deed and cover his tracks. He would have liked the help of a doctor, but the best he can do is a former veterinarian (Ilan Dar) and a retired police detective (Rafael Tabor.)
Given what a small world the retirement home is, it’s inevitable that other residents hear what Yehezkel is up to and start to comically importune him about getting in on the action.
At the same time, and much more bleakly, Yehezel’s wife, Levana, develops increasingly serious symptoms of dementia (portrayed unblinkingly and without sentiment), and decisions about what to do about her future become more and more pressing.
Though its pace is the opposite of the frenetic tone adapted by most American comedies, “The Farewell Party” never loses track of its sense of the absurd and includes slapstick moments as well as a running gag about being stopped for a traffic ticket.
On paper, the delicate balance “The Farewell Party” achieves sounds undoable, but on the screen, the only place that matters, this impossible mission is a success.
‘The Farewell Party’
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Royal, West Los Angeles; Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Town Center 5, Encino