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Entries in Farewell Party/The [2014] (1)

Friday
Jun122015

The Farewell Party (2014)

Living with Dignity

While most movies strive to entertain and instruct, the best pull our spirits over to the side of the road for a much-needed appreciation of life's magnificent scenery. Exhibit A is The Farewell party, a sweet tear-jerker with a heart as big as its humor is black. Co-writers/directors Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon's story of Israeli septuagenarians forming a secret right-to-die cabal within their retirement community is as poignant a movie as I've seen in years. As human-frailty pictures go, this one makes Still Alice look like the sparkling Hollywood tripe that it is.

Ze'ev Revach stars as Yehezkel, a machinist living in denial that his wife, Levana (Levana Finkelstein), is succumbing to dementia. When the couple's best friend laments that her terminally ill husband is in for a long haul of undue pain and suffering, Yehezkel works with a retired veterinarian (Ilan Dar) to develop a Kevorkian-inspired dignified-death machine. Word spreads quickly, and Yehezkel and his gang soon find themselves in high demand.

As absurd and morbid as the premise is, Granit and Maymon ground their story in recognizable human truths. Each character in the film presents a complex question to the audience. There's a closeted doctor who asks us to consider the uselessness of shame; another resident desperately violates his every decent instinct in blackmailing Yehezkel into assisting his wife's suicide; Yehezkel himself must rally to stave off panic attacks (which he believes, perhaps rightfully so, are harbingers of something far more serious); it doesn't help that Levana is morally opposed to his contraption and the buzz it's created in their once relatively peaceful world.

In addition to sharp writing powered by nth-level insights, The Farewell Party's greatest asset is its cast. A mainstream Hollywood movie of this kind would have surely starred Morgan Freeman, Judi Dench, and Jack Nicholson, absent-mindedly playing their greatest hits. But this talented troupe has the un-glamorous, world-weary look of people who've come to the end of long and interesting lives. I know nothing of the actors' careers outside The Farewell Party (shame on me), but there's nothing presumptuous or artificial about a single choice here.

Granit and Maymon treat even the broad comedic elements as integral parts of their greater story--instead of cute diversions from it. The film's cold open, in which Yehezkel calls a depressed widow and offers comforting words as the voice of God, is cute and implies that The Farewell Party will have an almost episodic structure. But that moment becomes important later, in one scene that ties directly back to it and another that is the capper to the film's spiritual thesis.

I'm still a relatively young man, but I have a wife and a son who grow older every day (as do I, of course). To what ends would I go to ease their pain? What am I doing today to ensure a lifetime of fond memories that they might look back on? In Yehezkel and Levana's complicated relationships with their friends, daughter and granddaughter, and each other, I experienced a lifetime of memories and emotional mountains and molehills. They say life passes before your eyes when you die; The Farewell Party offers the cinematic version of that--along with a big, warm hug to last the rest of your days.