Movie review: ‘Farewell Party’ is movingly persuasive

Al Alexander For The Patriot Ledger
A scene from the Israeli comedy, "The Farewell Party."

‘The Farewell Party” is hands down the best euthanasia comedy ever made. True, it’s probably the only entry in the genre, but it sets a fairly high bar for any other filmmaker daring to follow writer-directors Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon in using humor to make a movingly persuasive argument for the right to die.

Jack Kevorkian would have loved it. What’s surprising is that you probably will, too. And for a multitude of reasons, the main one being its adorably charming geriatric star Ze’ev Revach. As Yehezkel, a mischievous, big-hearted septuagenarian who’s made it his mission to lift the spirits of his fellow residents at a Jerusalem retirement home, Revach fully earns the Israeli academy’s best actor award by taking a stereotypical role and pumping it full of life. And he does it, ironically, enveloped in an atmosphere where pain and suffering are constant companions.

You’d follow him anywhere, a trait that comes in handy when he becomes the de facto leader of a ragtag death squad called into action when Yehezkel’s cancer-stricken best friend decides he’s had enough and wants to check out on his own terms. And he won’t be their last client.

I can hear you saying, “How can this be funny?” I’m not sure, but somehow Granit and Maymon strike a delicate balance with their numerous tonal shifts, fluidly toggling between gallows humor and the crushing reality of sharp minds being betrayed by old, frail bodies. Then the duo go and underscore it with generous amounts of heart, particularly as it pertains to Yehezkel and his wife, Levana (Levana Finkelstein), a victim of Alzheimer’s whose memory lapses are rapidly on the rise.

Like us, Levana isn’t completely sold on the concept of assisted suicide, but also like us, she gradually comes to understand why her husband and his two primary assistants, a former veterinarian (Ilan Dar) with loads of experience in putting creatures “to sleep,” and an ex detective (Rafael Tabor) adept at sidestepping the law, can perform these mercy killings with such a clear conscience.

Only once do Granit and Maymon err, and it’s in a needless musical montage randomly tossed into the mix. Not only is it clunky, it’s completely out of character with the rest of the film. But that lone misstep is a mere quibble in what is otherwise a deeply touching examination of a warped system in which terminal patients are poked, prodded and forced to endure great anguish because society believes it immoral for them to even think about hastening their inevitable demise.

The film repeatedly asks, “Who are we to judge when we’re not the person in constant misery?” Doesn’t that person have the right to die if they see no further point in living? In that respect, the enlightening questions and ideas emanating from “The Farewell Party” serve as a terrific starting point for a serious national debate on death with dignity.

It certainly won’t change any laws, but it might well change a lot of minds.

Movie review: “The Farewell Party.” Unrated. Cast includes Ze’ev Revach, Levana Finkelstein and Ilan Dar. Written and directed by Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon. In Hebrew with English subtitles. Grade: B.