'The Farewell Party' ('Mita Tova'): Venice Review

Max Hochstein/Pie Films
Killing them softly

Israeli oldsters rewrite the rules on assisted suicide in this beautifully acted film by Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon

VENICE — The provocative issue of euthanasia is addressed with wisdom, sensitivity and a welcome strain of humor in writer-director team Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon's The Farewell Party. Anyone ever touched by the inexorable decline of an elderly family member afflicted with terminal illness or dementia will be moved by this tender, unexpectedly charming tale of a posse of Jerusalem retirement home residents who devise a humane means of allowing chronic cases to end their suffering.

Medical advances in the treatment of strokes, heart disease, cancer and cognitive impairment mean more and more patients in advanced countries are being kept alive longer, often when their quality of life has deteriorated beyond the endurable. Nevertheless, assisted suicide remains a subject most governments are reluctant to consider sanctioning. That lends this film topical relevance, but it's the balance of audaciousness and delicacy, along with the lovely performances of a cast of veteran actors, that gives it heart. Whether the subject matter will prove too confronting for the generation it most concerns is the big question hovering over its arthouse prospects.

Amateur inventor Yehezkel (Ze'ev Revah) and his wife, Levana (Levana Finkelshtein), are a devoted couple in their seventies, torn by the pain of watching their dear friend Max (Shmuel Wolf) succumb with agonizing slowness to an unforgiving illness while doctors persist in keeping him alive. Max's wife, Yana (Aliza Rozen), is even more aggrieved by the prolonged ordeal of her husband; she agrees readily to his wish for swifter deliverance.

When official hospital channels refuse to cooperate, Yehezkel and Yana hook up with retired vet Dr. Daniel (Ilan Dar) and his married boyfriend, Raffi (Rafael Tabor), an ex-cop introduced naked and, quite literally, in the closet. With Yehezkel's mechanical know-how, Daniel's experience in putting old dogs to sleep and Raffi's knowledge of how to get around the law, they devise a means for Max to bid farewell on his own terms, simply by pushing a button.

However, as word of their "mercy-killing machine" leaks out in the senior community, customer requests start trickling in. Those begin with a devastated but persistent Dubek (Yossef Karmon), who begs for help to save his dying wife from additional months of hell. His account of holding a pillow over her head and being unable to do the job himself is wrenching.

Granit and Maymon, in league with their wonderful cast, handle these events with seriousness, but also with touches of low-key gallows humor that only very occasionally slide into cute territory. A running joke with a macho cop that pulls the geriatric outlaws over for speeding and other violations is priceless, as is the sight of them puffing on cigarettes while gravely nodding their heads over the ravages of lung cancer.

While Levana disapproves of what her husband and his accomplices are doing, the emotional stakes are raised considerably when the stress accelerates her own onset of dementia. All the actors are terrific, notably Revach, a major star of popular Israeli comedies. But Finkelshtein's performance is the real jewel here, as this deeply principled woman makes heartbreaking decisions that are even tougher on Yehezkel than on herself. "I'm disappearing," Levana says in one of the film's most affecting scenes. "I'm just a shell."

There are weaknesses in the script, notably the imposed introduction of additional conflict pertaining to Raffi that comes out of nowhere and adds little. And a musical interlude in which all the characters sing of their yearning for Neverland is stylistically out of synch with the unflashy film's compassionate realism. But in its choice to sidestep religion and politics, and instead adopt a humanistic perspective on the right to die and the sorrowful ritual of separation, this is an original work of gentle militancy.

Production companies: Pie Films, 2Team Productions, in association with Pallas Films, Twenty Twenty Vision, United King Films
Cast: Ze'ev Revach, Levana Finkelshtein, Aliza Rozen, Ilan Dar, Rafael Tabor,Shmuel Wolf, Yossef Karmon
Director-screenwriters: Tal Granit, Sharon Maymon
Producers: Talia Kleinhendler, Osnat Handelsman-Keren, Haim Mecklberg, EsteeYacov-Mecklberg, Thanassis Karathanos, Karl Baumgartner, Moshe Edery, Leon Edery
Director of photography: Tobias Hochstein
Production designer: Arad Sawat
Costume designer: Laura Sheim
Music: Avi Belleli
Editor: Einat Glaser-Zarhin
Sales: Beta Cinema

No rating, 93 minutes.