One could compile a very long list of movies whose enjoyment is enhanced by watching them with someone you love. The Farewell Party is the rare film that should be seen with someone you trust with your life.
Israeli filmmakers Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon set their funny, sensitive and ultimately moving tale among a small coterie of longtime friends heroically maintaining their independence and dignity in a Jerusalem retirement home. The suffering of a terminally ill member of their circle forces them to consider the merit, and confront the risks, of friend-assisted suicide.
There’s some pithy dialogue about the difference between helping a buddy and committing murder, but The Farewell Party isn’t interested in advancing a position on euthanasia or even grappling with the ethics or morality of one’s right to die. The film’s concern is for the spouse tasked with the agonizing responsibility of carrying out the decision of a suffering husband or wife.
Lest this sound like a must-avoid movie of the week, Granit and Maymon filter the proceedings through the deliciously absurdist mix of baleful fatalism and real-world pragmatism that is Jewish humor.
Through its first half, The Farewell Party smoothly glides from deadpan comedy to black comedy to bittersweet comedy. The chuckles taper off en route to a perfectly conceived anti-climax, a poignant coda to the lifelong love affair whose last chapters we’ve been privy to.
The Farewell Party opened Friday at the Avalon Theatre in Washington. Wonderfully played by a cadre of veteran comic actors, it’s the film for anyone who’s ever grumbled that nobody makes movies for older audiences anymore.
After a marvelously droll opening scene in which Yehezkel (Ze-ev Revah) plays God to persuade a beloved friend to choose life and continue her treatment, the retired inventor is reluctantly corralled into helping ease the anguish of an expiring pal.
“They’re keeping him alive as though dying was a crime,” says the man’s wife, Yana (Aliza Rozen).
One of the movie’s refreshingly tart assumptions is that the elderly can’t afford the luxury of self-deception. Well, with one huge exception, that is: Yehezkel refuses to acknowledge that his wife’s steadily worsening memory lapses will necessitate moving her to an assisted-living facility in the not-distant future.
Despite the recurring presence of Yehezkel and Levana’s adult daughter and grandchild, this is a film about a stratum of society—older people—that is essentially invisible to everyone but its distinguished (and roguish) members. Out of necessity, they are compelled to create their own community.
There are moments in The Farewell Party, consequently, that edge toward a comedy about codgers executing a heist, or a drama examining the portentous final stages of long-term relationship.
But Granit and Maymon maintain such a solid grasp on their film’s tone and aesthetic that it never tips too far in either direction. The austere palette of cool blues and grays, combined with the near-absence of music, eliminates any whiff of sentimentality or, for that matter, situation comedy.
What comes through in every frame of The Farewell Party is compassion for the human condition. If you think about it, movies can’t offer anything more compelling, or rewarding, than that.
Michael Fox is a film reviewer based in San Francisco.