(This film review of “The Farewell Party” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on October 23, 2014.)
Directed by Tal Granit and Sharom Maymon
Starring Ze’ev Revach, Levana Finkelshtein, Aliza Rosen, Ilan Dar and Rafi Tabor
Further proof that Israeli film has gone “mainstream” arrives with the black comedy “The Farewell Party” (Hebrew: “Mita Tova”), part of this year’s Jewish International Film Festival here in Australia. This unusual story features a group of elderly Jerusalem aged care home residents who build and successfully operate a euthanasia machine to help the desperate to die.
Conventional film-making usually ignores films about ageing and dying: how do you turn the depressing into an uplifting story? “Benjamin Button” did it through inverting the chronology, “Harold and Maude” through a May-December relationship and the characters in “Cocoon” found eternal life. But “The Farewell Party” is more grounded in the reality of death and dying.
The opening scene sets the comic tone: former engineer Yehezkel enjoys “playing God” by ringing a very elderly woman, comforting her by using a voice synthesiser to sound like the Almighty. However, his devoted wife Levana is in early – and rapidly increasing – stages of dementia, and their close friends Yana and Max are facing a crisis, with Max in the final painful stages of life. With the assistance of Dr Daniel, a veterinarian in their building who knows quite a lot about “putting down” animals, their team is complete to grant Max his wish. (The Australian angle is that the euthanasia machine constructed by Yehezkel is based on one popularised by Philip Nitschke, the Australian doctor who has long advocated the practice.)
The cast is wonderful, filled with many of the ageing greats of Israeli film and theatre. There are also a number of wonderful and slyly funny scenes: one character decides to come “out of the closet” as gay; the friends scheme to fool hospital staff monitoring by switching the equipment; and they farewell a lung cancer patient through a smoking party.
Ultimately, the film becomes quite serious: who are they, exactly, to play God in this way? Facing these ethical and moral dilemmas, particularly once their “technique” is known and appears in demand, is a conundrum that the characters are not prepared for. The topic is challenging, and – despite many great moments – the film-makers never quite achieve a balanced tone in “The Farewell Party”, varying between the darkness of “Amour” to the lightness of “Cocoon”. The result is a good, although not great film.