Film Review: TrumanA rewardingly understated, feel-good film about dying.
The sense that Cesc Gay might make a significant mark on the offshore art house has been in the air for a long time, and Truman represents his best shot yet. In the years since his debut in 2000 with Krampack, Gay has quietly been establishing himself, via such titles as Fiction and A Gun in Each Hand, as a key chronicler of the insecurities of Spain’s Generation X as it anxiously grows older, and Truman, his inevitably melancholy record of four days in the shared lives of a dying man and his visiting friend, tackles the biggest insecurity of all for a generation that, around now, is starting to become aware of its own mortality.
It’s Gay’s most emotionally direct work to date, thoroughly shedding the clever-cleverness of some of his earlier work, and also his most accessible—a clean-lined, sensitively written and beautifully played two-hander that tackles complex issues in a refreshingly straightforward, downbeat way.
Teacher Tomás (Javier Cámara) leaves his Canadian home to fly to Madrid, where he’ll spend four days in the company of actor Julián (Ricardo Darín), about ten years his senior. (Both actors are repeating with Gay from the shorts that comprised Gun.) As his fierce coughing from behind his closed door tells us, Julián has terminal cancer. Initially Julián is suspicious that Tomas is there to talk him out of his decision to halt his treatment, and there is tension, but this dissipates as he accompanies his friend around Madrid making his final preparations, seeking to settle his accounts before his departure.
Julián has decided to posthumously put his faithful, sad-eyed boxer, Truman, up for adoption and seems to care more about Truman’s fate than his own: He’s madly displacing his own emotions and fears onto his dog, hence the (completely misleading) title. Worriedly, Julián and Tomás visit a vet (Alex Brendemuhl) to ask, in a typically tragicomic scene, about how a bereaved dog might feel. Then it's off to the doctor (Pedro Casablanc), to reveal that Julián has decided to terminate his treatment.
The film shifts between face-to-face scenes involving the two leads and scenarios involving other characters placed in situations viewers may well have imagined themselves in. If you were dying, would you tell your friend Luis (Eduard Fernández) you’d slept with his wife? How would that play out? If you suspected a friend of ignoring you because they felt too uncomfortable about your imminent death, would you challenge them about it? Thus, Truman cannily plays into our collective imaginings.
For this character-based film, Gay has gathered an array of Spain’s finest character actors. They are the right vehicles for Truman’s sharp observation of people and their relationships: about, say, how a late-night conversation by cellphone can be more sincere than face-to-face. There’s much black comedy, as in a conversation with a slick, faux-compassionate coffin salesman played by Javier Gutiérrez, from Alberto Rodriguez’s multiple award-winning Marshland. (Who knew they made salt coffins, designed to dissolve in the sea?)
There’s bitterness too, when the producer of Dangerous Liaisons (magnificently rendered by vet José Luis Gómez), in which Julián is still performing, has to fire him. And tenderness, particularly over the emotionally charged final half-hour, in a plotline involving Julián’s wife Gloria (Elvira Mínguez) and son Nico (Oriol Pla); the closer the characters are to Julián, the greater the emotional intensity. Argentinian Dolores Fonzi does good work as Julián’s frustrated, protective sister Paula, but her role feels a little unfocused, especially given the dramatic clarity of the events unfolding around her in what’s essentially a bromance with a twist.
“Everyone dies in the way they know how,” muses Julián at one point, and Darín seems typically committed to proving that particular philosophical point. Recently very much in the spotlight with Damián Szifrón’s Wild Tales, he is currently Argentina’s highest-profile actor: Though he’s been in bad films, he’s only ever delivered a good performance. Truman doesn’t alter that, with the script compelling the actor to explore the sufferings behind Julián’s bravado and self-protective black humor without ever explicitly giving them voice. As a performance, it’s an exercise in how to deliver subtle reaction shots, as Julián slowly comes to realize that there’s no tidy way of wrapping up a life.
It’s a buttoned-down performance in line with the film’s careful avoidance of sentimentality. It contrasts nicely with Cámara’s, one of Spain’s leading character actors, more flamboyant, open style. The strongest scenes, in a film which is ultimately about friendship, are the ones featuring just the two of them.
Madrid watchers will enjoy identifying the bars and barrios where Julián and Tomás hang out, in what amounts to a small homage to a city which, given the subject matter, is often ironically brightly lit by DP Andreu Rebés. In a film whose development depends more on increasingly heightening intensity than on unfolding events, Pablo Barbieri’s editorial judgment is spot on.
There’ll be much post-screening debate about the meaning of the titular pooch: The melancholy features of the aging Truman seems to shadow the film, and the lives of the characters in it, like death itself. Audiences will make up their own minds about all that, but it is indeed Truman, touchingly and appropriately, who gets the last word.--The Hollywood Reporter
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