Israel Takes Center Stage at Venice Film Fest, Finding Humor in Death

Israeli film The Farewell Party, about a mercy-killing machine, premiered at the Venice Film Festival last week.

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Directors Sharon Maymon, left, and Tal Granit at the 2014 Venice Film Festival.
Directors Sharon Maymon, left, and Tal Granit at the 2014 Venice Film Festival.Credit: AP

VENICE, Italy — With dozens of films jostling for attention at the Venice Film Festival, it takes originality to make an impact. Two Israeli filmmakers have done it by refusing to accept that death is no laughing matter.

“The Farewell Party” centers on a group of Jerusalem retirement-home residents who create a euthanasia machine to put a dying friend out of his misery — and then face a moral dilemma when others come seeking the same service.

The movie treats assisted suicide — illegal in Israel and many other countries — with large doses of comedy, an idea some may find off-putting. But directors Sharon Maymon and Tal Granit insist that the movie’s unusual tone, with shoots of laughter and absurdity illuminating the darkness, simply reflects real life.

Maymon said the seed of the film was the death of his ex-boyfriend’s elderly grandmother.

“We felt like death released her from pain and suffering — but then the paramedics came into the house and tried to resuscitate her for half an hour,” the director said during an interview in Venice. “They were fighting for her life like she was 16 years old. It was so absurd, and from this absurd moment the idea came.

“There was a funny moment when her son told the paramedics: ‘If you wake her up, you are taking her with you.’”

The directors know not everyone will find that funny. Granit said some people had been scandalized by the idea for their film.

“They told us, ‘How can you laugh about such a thing?’” she said.

“But we really believed in this movie, what it says. It’s very important for us to raise these questions.”

And, she said, “We love to take risks.”

Maymon and Granit have a record of tackling tough social issues with humor in their three previous shorts and one feature, “Mortgage,” about a couple battling to save their home at any cost.

The script for “The Farewell Party” won the “best pitch” award at the Berlin Film Festival, but finding a producer proved tricky in Germany, where many oppose assisted suicide because of its association with Nazi euthanasia programs.

Even when the money was in place, casting also had its glitches.

The protagonists in “The Farewell Party” are played by well-known Israeli actors, including veteran comedian Ze’ev Revah as Yehezkel, the amateur inventor of the mercy-killing machine.

Consulting the rabbi before taking the part

Maymon said Revah consulted his rabbi before agreeing to take the part. Some other actors didn’t show up for auditions.

“It was very hard for them to deal with this subject because they are old and they felt that it’s too close for them,” he said.

Israel’s film industry is vibrant for a country its size, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sometimes shadows its productions on the international stage.

Another Israeli-funded film at the festival, “Villa Touma,” is at the center of a political spat after Israeli Arab director Suha Arraf submitted it as a Palestinian entry, sparking calls in Israel for the director to give the Israeli money back.

Israeli scripts have been the basis of several Hollywood hits, however, including the television series “Homeland.”

Maymon’s last feature, the sumo-wrestling comedy “A Matter of Size,” is being remade in Hollywood, and it’s easy to imagine “The Farewell Party” getting the same treatment. The international audience in Venice reacted warmly; the Hollywood Reporter called in a charming film that approached its subject “with wisdom, sensitivity and a welcome strain of humor.”

It also offers plum roles for older actors. The main cast members do everything from pratfalls to poignant exchanges and even have a nude scene.

And, the directors say, the film’s themes are universal.

“It talks about friendship and about love and about separation from someone you love,” Granit said. “Our story tells an international story that anyone can relate to.”

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