If getting old is inevitable, it’s best to do it with humor and dignity. The Farewell Party (Mita Tova) (2015) focuses on a group of friends who learn this lesson the hard way. The group is confronted with a painful proposition that puts them in a predicament when their terminally ill friend Max (Shmuel Wolf) wants them to end his life. Does the group risk imprisonment and assist in Max’s suicide, or do they adhere to Israeli law and let Max suffer?
As they try to answer this question, they quickly realize that Max has reached a pivotal point in old age when humor and dignity are out of the question. The pain of his illness is too agonizing, and the inability to control it is too humiliating. As a result, they overcome their reservations and grant Max his dying wish.
On paper, The Farewell Party looks like the most depressing movie ever made, but it’s actually quite funny. The film’s humorous treatment of so-called “mercy killing” will certainly provoke some viewers, but it doesn’t have a political point to prove like The Sea Inside (2004), the biopic about Ramón Sampedro, nor does it aim to educate viewers about assisted suicide, like the documentary How to Die in Oregon (2011).
Instead, the film tells its story in a matter-of-fact manner. Filmmakers Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon don’t judge their characters’ decisions. They simply present us with people who suffer in old age and decide to end their lives before the suffering becomes unbearable and they are unable to act autonomously.
The stand-out performers in the excellent ensemble are Ze’ev Revah as Yehezkel, a man who willingly assists in Max’s suicide, but gets angry when his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife Levana (Levana Finkelstein) wants him to end her life, Finkelstein as Levana, whose condition gets worse before our eyes, and Aliza Rosen as Max’s grieving wife, Yana. They all reside in the same retirement home in Jerusalem.
At a swift 95 minutes, the film never overstays its welcome. Granit and Maymon create a healthy balance between absurdity and realism, and dark comedy and intimate drama. The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Tobias Hochstein, but like all successful films, the substance is found in the relationships between the characters. The Farewell Party is not a pretentious cinematic experiment. It is a simple story well told.
There are memorable laugh out loud moments that save the film from solemnity. After the group assists Max in his suicide, an elderly stranger named Dubek (Yossef Karmon) asks them to do the same for his wife. Dubek threatens to turn them in to the police if they don’t. In response to Dubek’s request, Yana quips to Yehezkel, “Tell him that you’re a murderer, not a serial killer.” Dubek continues to stalk them, and the group reluctantly meets with him in a secret dark room. Dubek tells them that his wife has lung cancer… as they casually smoke their cigarettes. Clever touches like these provide the film with a deliciously twisted sense of humor.
In this regard, The Farewell Party has much in common with Talya Lavie’s Zero Motivation (2015), a satire of Israel’s military. Both films boldly challenge an Israeli audience to laugh at controversial subjects. The former tells cancer jokes, and the latter mocks a culture that takes pride in military service. Collectively, these films represent a new wave of iconoclastic filmmakers, and their rebellion is refreshing.
Like Lavie, Granit and Maymon make light of a sensitive subject without sacrificing pathos. In the process of ending other people’s pain, the characters ultimately come to terms with their own, and it’s suddenly not as comical. It’s hard not to admire their ability to laugh in the face of suffering, and perhaps more courageously, to call it quits when the laughter subsides. Those who are experiencing old age will likely relate to this, and those of us who are younger can only hope that we, too, will maintain our dignity during the darkest hours before death.
Unfortunately, the DVD’s only bonus feature is a gallery of film trailers. This is disappointing, and viewers are better off renting the film from an on-demand digital streaming service for a much cheaper price. I would’ve preferred a behind-the-scenes featurette, or at least some background information on the perception of assisted suicide in Israel. How controversial is it, and what do the majority of Israelis think about it? Is the film based on a true event, or did it spring from the minds of the filmmakers? These questions are left unanswered.