Review: Dark Israeli comedy ‘The Farewell Party’ finds humor in assisted dying

VENICE – When high schoolers Cher (Alicia Silverstone) and Dionne (Stacey Dash) successfully fix up a couple of single teachers in Amy Heckerling's seminal teen hit “Clueless”, the pampered girls coo “Old people can be so sweet!” as the targets of their matchmaking begin to enjoy a tentative romance. The joke is on the naive teens; we're laughing at their blithely patronizing attitude towards their elders. Would that all films were as smart as Heckerling's Jane Austen revamp.

There are far too many films that play aging for the wrong sort of laughs. They usually fall into two camps. For some, the idea of older people falling in love and having sex is seen is adorable and/or amazing. It's the same attitude that Dr Samuel Johnson brought to the table when discussing female preachers: “A woman preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” The second common strain of thinking is that old people screwing or even just nude is disgusting and/or comical (for example, this article on the 25 Grossest Nude Scenes in Movies includes at least eight entries where the main crime in the eyes of the writer appears to be that the actor in question is over forty).

In “The Farewell Party”, both of these outdated attitudes are mercifully absent. A compassionate but never mawkish comedy about facing the end of one's life, directors Sharon Maymon and Tal Granit locate dark humour in difficult areas, but never fall into the trap of diminishing the passion and pathos of their elderly protagonists through sentiment or gross out. They're aided hugely by a talented ensemble of actors, particularly comedian Ze”ev Revah (a former Israeli Film Academy Awards Best Actor winner).

The mechanics of the slight plot are minimal: a small clique living in a community of retired people are dismayed by the prolonged suffering of one of their number, who is terminally ill and has expressed a wish to end his own life humanely. His wife Yana (Aliza Rozen) is determined to enlist some help. Yehezkel (Revah) happens to be an amateur inventor and soon finds himself tinkering with a machine that would enable his friend to self-administer a lethal dose of anesthetic; before long, word spreads and soon other candidates are putting themselves forward. It might not sound like a topic to be mined for comedy, but the film grants its characters a humanity that other explorations of old age sometime fail to achieve, which ensures we're laughing with the ensemble, not at them.

At other times, the film is unbearably sad. It's largely not the scenes that you would expect to provoke an emotional response which caught me out, and I think this is very deliberate on the part of the filmmakers. Death scenes are played respectfully but with a deft touch that means you don't get as emotionally close to the moment as you might think. However, the increasingly severe lapses to which Yehezkel's wife Levana (Levana Finkelshtein) finds herself prone as she copes with incipient dementia are quietly devastating (that Finkelshtein never resorts to actorly showboating makes their impact all the more impressive).

In one scene, Levana wanders down to breakfast naked, in front of dozens of fellow retirees. She doesn't understand what she's doing. When she does realize, her humiliated reaction is heartbreaking, but even more than that, its the touching reaction of her friends that is most emotionally resonant and real. They are able to employ a resource utterly out of reach of any nurse or therapist, something that only very old friends can call on: mutual memories formed decades ago. In this case, it's Yana's memory of her and Levana sunbathing nude on the beach, teasing their admirers – “we were the hot chicks from Jerusalem!” Their memories of youth are more upsetting than the iniquities of old age.

“The Farewell Party” is not, incidentally, a polemic for or against assisted dying. Both sides of that debate are allowed to have their say, but it's not really an issues movie; it's more about emotions than legal or moral debate. It is a mostly naturalistic piece (barring a semi-successful musical number halfway through the film), although the suggestion that so much is able to unfold under the noses of hospital and nursing home staff without incurring a blink of suspicion is hopefully wishful thinking.

It is for documentaries to explore the factual aspects of this controversial issue more thoroughly, but it is encouraging to see this pressing subject form the backbone of a feature length narrative – most of the mainstream films that spring to mind when you think about cinematic depictions of euthanasia tend to feature it as a heart-wrenching twist in the tale, rather than the main thrust of the story (I'm thinking of “Million Dollar Baby”, “One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest”, “The English Patient” and their ilk). It's a popular device, but not a common central theme.

Premiering in Venice Days (a strand analogous to Cannes' Directors' Fortnight), “The Farewell Party” began its life as a script entitled “My Sweet Euthanasia”, which won the Best Pitch Award at the 2010 Berlinale. It's the latest fruit of a creative partnership that dates back to 2006 TV movie “Mortgage”, when Israeli directing duo Maymon and Granit first worked together. It's not a film you'd imagine doing huge box office outside of Israel – dark comedy without stars is a difficult sell – but I can absolutely picture a US or UK remake with a cast of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, “Leaving Last Vegas” or “And So It Goes” caliber attached.