“The Farewell Party” Poses More Questions Than Answers

“The Farewell Party” poses questions more usually associated with the High Holidays and long hours of contemplation in the sanctuary: Who shall live? Who shall die? Who by destiny? Who by free will? Although touted as an Israeli comedy about euthanasia, the film raises important political, ethical and religious points about assisted suicide and the fine line between aiding a suffering friend and playing God.

The film is set in Jerusalem in a retirement home where everyone knows each other’s business. Although the residents have individual apartments with doors that close, the atmosphere is more like a kibbutz.

Amateur inventor Yehezkel (Ze’ev Revach) and his waifish wife, Levana (Levana Finkelshtein) are a devoted couple with a small circle of equally devoted friends. Their terminally ill best pal, Max, who doctors are keeping alive against his will, is suffering terribly from the prolonged constant pain. When his wife Yana begs Yehezkel to help in any way he can, he agrees.

The machinist teams up with retired vet Dr. Daniel to design a machine that will assist the angel of death with the push of a button. Dr. Daniel’s married lover Raffi (whom we meet for the first time literally in the closet and naked), a retired cop, suggests the mercy killers pre-tape a video of Max stating that he is ending his life of his own free will and that he alone is responsible for his decision and his action.

The posse gathers to inaugurate Yehezkel’s machine in a loving bedside farewell that restores dignity and a smile to Max’s pain-wracked face. They swear each other to secrecy but since their lives at the communal retirement home are open books where the lines between the private and public blur, word soon gets out that there is an alternative to death with indignity.

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The friends of “The Farewell Party” gather to hear the pleas of a fellow septuagenarian whose wife wants to end her life. 

Levana, the only one of the group who morally opposes euthanasia, is ironically the only one in its needs when she starts her slow disappearance into the abyss of dementia. Yehezkel’s reaction to his wife’s request spotlights the dilemmas and ambiguities of assisted suicide, and we see in his face he wishes, too late, that he had never decided to tinker with matters of life and death.

The film is surprisingly light and graceful and the cast interesting and believable. The writer-director team Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon balance tenderness and daring as they tackle the contemporary issue of how to deal with elderly patients who may not want the all the wonders medicine makes available to them. They take their serious subject seriously, but ably interweave humor and heartbreaking caring. Although “The Farewell Party” is a film about death, it is also a film about the sanctity of life.

When that life becomes subjectively unendurable, and the treatment objectively values quantity of days lived over their quality, the doctor’s drive to keep the patient alive at all costs becomes as cruel and impersonal as the disease itself.

However, whether a tinkerer and a retired vet have the right to build a “mercy-killing machine” and use it with impunity is not necessarily the best alternative. Or is it?

Check local theater listings for times and locations.

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