A neatly balanced tragicomedy about the easily blurred line between assisted living and assisted death, The Farewell Party follows a group of friends in an Israeli assisted living community as they help each other cope with the ravages of aging, including the agony of slow, painful deaths from the likes of cancer and dementia’s rapid diminishment of the self. A scene in which they’re stopped for speeding on the way home from a comrade’s deathbed injects the kind of relief you might find in a joke shared at a wake. The cocky young traffic cop starts off condescending to Yehezkel (Ze’ev Revach), the “Gramps” at the wheel, but he loses his composure when Yana (Aliza Rosen), the dead man’s wife, starts to weep and Yehezkel says it’s because of the cost of the ticket. (“We live on Social Security,” he says sorrowfully, playing the “old” card deftly). The rest of the group starts to cry, too, triggered by Yana’s tears, and the discombobulated cop brusquely announces that he’s letting them off.
Being stopped by the cop carries an additional charge because Yana’s husband didn’t just die; he ended his pain-wracked life voluntarily, using an illegal assisted-suicide machine that Yana requested and Yehezkel built, with help from their friend Dr. Daniel (Ilan Dar) and his on-the-down-low married lover. (In another tension-reducing comic bit, the lover is literally hiding in a closet when the rest of the group first encounters him.) Like a geriatric Ocean’s Eleven, the film’s heroes cook up their plan for the machine in various emblematic settings, but rather than glamorous casinos or cushy hotel rooms, they plot in places like their upscale facility’s greenhouse or an activities room in which a bingo game is in progress.
The suicide machine was intended just for their friend, but word spreads around the close-knit retirement community and others want to use it, creating ethical and emotional dilemmas for Yehezkel and the others. Emotions—and tensions within the group—get particularly charged when a core member, Yehezkel’s cherished wife Levana (Levana Finkelstein), decides she wants to put an end to her rapid decline into full-blown dementia. “I’m disappearing,” she tells her husband, who can’t handle that reality. The beautiful Finkelstein, whose neck and back are so lovely that the camera sometimes lingers on them, has a graceful physicality that makes Levana’s growing fear and sadness painfully vivid. Short gray hair accentuating her searching black eyes, she reacts to her increasingly mortifying gaffes with a symphony of eloquent actions, from embarrassed glances to long, stricken gazes to wracking sobs.
Never making light of the heartaches or moral dilemmas their main characters face, filmmakers Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon don’t shy from the basic human reality Bette Davis supposedly voiced: Old age isn’t for sissies. But its low-key humor and nuanced relationships keep The Farewell Party from feeling oppressively heavy.