The Farewell Party’ takes on end-of-life moral dilemmas

Ze’ev Revach and Levana Finkelshtein star in the Israeli film ’The Farewell Party.’  Photo: Max Hochstein 

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Should someone help a terminally ill friend or loved one who decides he wants to die? That’s the legal, moral and emotional dilemma that confronts a group of 70-something longtime friends living in a Jerusalem retirement home in “The Farewell Party.” 

The film focuses on a happily married couple, Yehezkel (Ze’ev Revach) and his wife, Levana (portrayed superbly by Levana Finkelshtein), who reside in a comfortable retirement home in Jerusalem. Their contentment is upended when they learn that their dear friend Max has fallen prey to a painful and irreversible illness. 

In desperation, Max reaches out to Yehezkel to help him die with dignity. Yehezkel, an amateur inventor, successfully builds what he calls a “Kevorkian machine” that will allow Max to press a button and administer a lethal dose of tranquilizers.

Levana makes it clear that she is adamantly opposed to the use of the device, which she considers immoral and a betrayal of the marriage contract. But Max pleads with Yehezkel that he cannot live that way. 

New Mt. Sinai Cemetery advertisement

Yehezkel, over the objections of his wife and assisted by other compassionate and trusted friends in the retirement center, complies with Max’s request, but only after being assured  that Max is “of sound mind” and using the device of his own free will.

One would think that such grim subject matter would condemn a film like “The Farewell Party” to be utterly depressing. But in the skilled hands of the writer-director team Sharon Maymon and Tal Granit, and the talented cast, the film strikes just the right balance between  very serious drama and gentle humor.

Things get complicated after Max’s wish is fulfilled, when other residents hear about the procedure and ask to be next in line. Not all of those requesting help in ending their lives appear to be in the same incurable and painful situation as Max, but once the initial deed was done, it becomes difficult to say no to others.

The situation becomes extremely complex when Levana, a luminously beautiful and vibrant woman, begins to show signs of early dementia. As her symptoms progress, she begins to drop her opposition to euthanasia and moves toward asking her beloved husband to put her out of her misery before she becomes embarrassingly demented. Her retirement home does not have a special ward for Alzheimer’s and other dementia cases, and the alternate facility they visit is shockingly depressing to the couple.

  Finkelshtein’s portrayal of the Levana invites comparison to Julianne Moore’s Oscar performance in the title role of “Still Alice,” about a beautiful, intelligent woman struggling with aggressive early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

It is a pleasure to see an Israeli film that does not deal with war or terrorism. Instead, the film grapples with the very real life and death issues raised when a loved one is painfully and terminally ill. “The Farewell Party” does not offer glib answers, but gives the viewer an opportunity to ask, “What would I do if faced with such a dilemma?” 

Don’t stay away because the film features older people struggling with matters of life and death. This very human and compassionate story is life-affirming and entertaining in spite of its otherwise grim subject matter.

‘The Farewell Party’

Opens: Friday, June 12, at Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema

Running time: 1:35

More info: In Hebrew with English subtitles