The Disease-of-the-Week movie tends to be a cheap and easy way for artists to assert their virtues. Who could possibly take offense at a film, or for that matter a charity fundraising pitch, that denounces cancer or heart disease? As long as no one raises questions about the environmental, economic or socio-political bases of diseases, as long as we all agree to talk only about “innocent” victims of illness, nobody will complain.
Sometimes the issues involved in a disease are just a bit too thorny for this approach, and filmmakers who call our attention to the messy complexities presented by those issues are entering a minefield. Consider “The Farewell Party,” a new Israeli film written and directed by Sharon Maymon and Tal Granit that opens May 22.
“The Farewell Party” is the latest example of a growing subgenre, the family melodrama with Alzheimer’s disease as its narrative catalyst. (Julianne Moore recently won an Academy Award for best actress for her portrayal of a linguistics professor suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice.”) As the population of major filmmaking countries continues to gray, the subject will be examined more frequently. Anyone who has experienced the irreversible effects of the disease on a family member will probably want to give such films a wide berth. For the tiny number of us who watch movies for a living, there is no choice, but if I have to see films on this subject, I hope they will all be as compassionate and respectful as “The Farewell Party.”
Hopefully, the filmmakers will be as allergic to easy answers and cheap emotional ploys as Maymon and Granit, and as willing to take small but very real risks in terms of gallows humor and the creation of fully rounded characters who are not ennobled by the mere fact of suffering. The half-dozen elderly residents of the Jerusalem retirement community in which their film mainly is set are quietly cantankerous, self-absorbed, greedy, vain, jealous and, therefore, normal human beings.
When her husband Max can no longer bear the suffering caused by his terminal illness, Yana (Aliza Rosen) turns to her oldest and closest friends, Yehezkel (Ze’ev Revah) and Levana (Levana Finkelshtein), for help. Yehezkel is a talented amateur inventor and she wants him to invent “a mercy-killing machine” to bring an end Max’s pain. Levana disapproves, but with the help of Dr. Daniel (Ilan Dar), a retired veterinarian, and Raffi (Rafael Tabor), a retired doctor with his own agenda, they perform the act.
As the film constantly reminds us, in a community as small as theirs in a nation as small as Israel, there are no secrets, and things rapidly spiral out of control. When Levana begins to exhibit clear signs of the onset of dementia, the moral issues become even more complicated as Yehezkel’s alternatives begin to narrow down.
Maymon’s previous work includes “A Matter of Size” (about sumo wrestlers), which she wrote and co-directed with Erez Tadmor; her screenplay for “Magic Men” (about a Holocaust survivor who travels to Greece with his chasidic rapper son), was co-authored with Tadmor and his co-director Guy Nattiv. Her previous work with Granit included several shorts and a telefilm. There are two elements that all these films share and that are at the heart of “The Farewell Party”: they have a collective protagonist with all the tensions that creates, and their multiple heroes redeem one another by the end of each movie, albeit at considerable emotional cost. They’re also frequently quite funny, despite plot lines that look unflinchingly into the emotional open wounds of those characters.
What makes “The Farewell Party” work particularly well is the cooling effects of a rigorous visual scheme. The vast majority of the film’s interiors are filled with blank white walls and the strange blue half-light of public institutions. And Maymon and Granit choose to maintain a certain distance between the camera and their characters, using close-ups sparingly and presenting scenes in rigidly balanced compositions that create a stylized world of acceptable gesture belying the chaotic emotions under these bland surfaces. The only significant exceptions are the video footage of the “confessions” of the dying recipients of the protagonists’ ministrations.
As a result “The Farewell Party” never descends into bathos. By its careful distancing, the film allows its characters to maintain their dignity and their humanity, and the emotional climaxes are, if anything, even more devastating to watch.
“The Farewell Party,” written and directed by Sharon Maymon and Tal Granit, opens Friday, May 22 at the Angelika Film Center (W. Houston St. and Broadway;  995-2570) and the City Cinemas 1, 2, 3 (Third Avenue and 59th Street;  777-FILM, #635).