For those who find the depiction of old age in Michael Haneke's "Amour" (2012) too bleak, or that in "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" too chipper, a happy medium might be found in "The Farewell Party," a bittersweet, wryly comic, keenly observed look at senescence from Israeli directors Sharon Maymon and Tal Granit.
Maybe not so happy, actually. "The Farewell Party" includes terminal illness, dementia, and assisted suicide. It's a film that takes on big questions, but it doesn't take them so seriously that the answers come easy.
A flippant, subversive tone is established in the opening scene, when Yehezkel (Ze'ev Revah), a septuagenarian retiree and amateur inventor, plays God. Literally. (This film specializes in literalized metaphors, as when a character literally comes out of the closet.) Yehezkel sits at his gadget-strewn desk, his back to the camera, which slowly zooms in. He's on the phone with fellow rest home resident Zelda (Ruth Geller) and is speaking through a device that makes his voice resonate with Godlike authority. Identifying himself as the Supreme Being, he advises Zelda to keep up with her chemo because heaven has no vacancies.
It's a funny bit, if a little cute. But when the scene repeats near the end of the film, with the camera this time approaching Yehezkel from the front, it's clear from his face that playing God is not all fun and games.
By that time he has had to deal with a much more morally ambiguous challenge when Yana (Aliza Rozen), the wife of Max (Shmuel Wolf), a close friend suffering from an agonizing terminal disease, implores him to help her put her husband out of his misery. Enlisting fellow retirees Dr. Daniel (Ilan Dar), a former veterinarian who serves as the medical consultant, and ex-police chief Raffi Segal (Rafael Tabor), acting as a legal adviser and crime scene cleanup expert, Yehezkel takes his knockoff of Dr. Kevorkian's assisted suicide machine and covertly helps Max achieve a dignified end.
But word gets out about Yehezkel's machine, and he finds it difficult to turn down those who beg him and sometimes extort him for his services. Until, that is, the dementia his wife, Levana (Levana Finkel-shtein), secretly suffers from worsens, and she expresses a wish to avoid the disease's inexorable deterioration. Then Yehezkel really wishes he had never dabbled in matters of life and death.
Except for a misconceived, out-of-the-blue montage of disparate people singing the same song, something that not even Paul Thomas Anderson could pull off in "Magnolia" (1999), Maymon and Granit maintain an admirable balance of sentiment and black comedy. More importantly, non-stereotypical characters and a superb cast insure that "The Farewell Party" celebrates not just the right to die but the value of living — even in a culture that denies old age and death.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.