January 21, 2019

Life of the ‘Party’

The poster for the film “The Farewell Party” shows three senior citizens, two male and one female, sitting together, smiling and stark naked, their private parts strategically covered.

Contrary to this teaser, the Israeli film is not about some kind of post-menopausal orgy. It deals with a much more fundamental, and increasingly debated, question — is self-inflicted or assisted suicide permissible, and even moral, when the aging human body is wracked with constant pain and the mind loses its grip?

The setting for “The Farewell Party” (“Mita Tova” in Hebrew) is a Jerusalem retirement home, so handsomely located and furnished as to easily pass for an upscale hotel.

Most of the inhabitants, or at least those featured in the film, are in their 70s or older, with each husband and wife team married for decades, and the partners deeply devoted to one another.

How do you express this love when your spouse tells you that every breath is sheer agony, that every hour the mind loses a piece of itself, and then begs you to put an end to the suffering?

The agonizing question was explored a few years ago in the superb Oscar-winning French film “Amour,” whose title, given the subject, implies there are times when the purest form of love is to help end the life of the one you love most. 

In the United States, the legality of assisted suicide is becoming an increasingly emotional and political issue, which will become only more urgent as more people reach their 80s, 90s and even centennials. Some demographers predict lifespans of 140 for babies born now.

Co-directors and writers Sharon Maymon and Tal Granit summarize the crux of their film with a truncated quotation from Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers: “For against your will you are formed, against your will you are born, against your will you live,” and, ask the longtime collaborators, “can you at least determine when to die?”

If the hypothetical reader asks just who needs to see such a grim and depressing film, the answer is that “The Farewell Party” is neither.

The credit for this must be divided between the script and the acting of Ze’ev Revah as the central character, Yehezkel.

Revah, 75 and born in Morocco, is one of Israel’s iconic actors, who first made his name by writing, directing and acting in Israel’s most popular comedies of the last 30 years.

With a walrus mustache and protruding belly, he is the life of the retirement community and devoted husband to Levana (Levana Finkelstein).

Yehezkel is an inveterate tinkerer and amateur inventor. When his closest friend, Max, asks him for help to end years of intense suffering, Yehezkel sets to work in a welding shop. He eventually comes up with a self-euthanasia machine, which allows Max to administer a lethal dose of tranquilizers if and when he wishes.

Levana passionately denounces her husband’s invention as immoral and points out that he will be in deep legal trouble if word of the invention becomes public.

Well, a retirement home with gossiping elders is not a good place to keep a secret, and soon petitioners approach Yehezkel to ask for his assistance.

One desperate man, whose wife is slowly dying of lung cancer and hourly asks her husband to help her end her life, threatens to turn Yehezkel in to the authorities unless he applies his machine.

However, Yehezkel refuses, leading to a disturbing outcome.

The underlying seriousness of the film is relieved by some lighter touches.

One resident, known as Dr. Daniel, is frequently sought out for medical advice, despite his insistence that he is just a veterinarian.

Yehezkel himself tries to calm an ill patient by calling her on the phone, identifying himself as God and assuring the woman that there is a place in heaven reserved for her. When the woman calls back, Yehezkel’s wife tells her that God is not available, because “he is in the toilet.”

The film has been shown in 25 countries so far, and everywhere the reaction is pretty much the same. “People come up to us after the film and they are laughing and crying at the same time,” Maymon said by phone from Israel.

Frequently, older people ask Granit where they can buy one of the film’s self-euthanasia machines and are disappointed when she answers that no such machine actually exists.

In Israel, assisted suicide is illegal, as it is in the United States (except for the states of Oregon, Washington and Vermont; Montana also allows doctor-assisted suicide but under more restrictive conditions than the other three states), but some Israelis circumvent the prohibition.

“They may go to Switzerland, where the procedure is legal,” Maymon said. Or relatives of a dying person may delay calling an ambulance to forestall any heroic resuscitation attempts.

“We plan everything in our lives,” Granit observed. “Maybe we should also plan how to die.”

“The Farewell Party” is another tribute to Israeli filmmakers, who are willing to explore grim and controversial themes that Hollywood is loath to tackle.

The film is scheduled to open June 5 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles, Town Center 5 in Encino and Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.