By André Crous
Truman says nothing and does very little except rest, sigh and sleep. And yet, the emotion that his presence elicits from the viewer of the film titled after him and helmed by Catalan director Cesc Gay is nearly pulverising.
“Truman” is a long-in-the-tooth, slow-on-his-feet boxer that has been with Julián, an Argentine-born theatre actor based in Madrid for more than three decades, for a long time. It comes as no surprise that Truman has basically become the divorced Julián’s life companion and second son.
After a brief opening scene in snow-swept Quebec (a running joke is that Julián consistently calls it the North Pole), we follow the middle-aged Tomás from his home to the airport and to Julián’s front door. Their meeting, after what we gather is too long, brings tears to Tomás’s eyes. But like so much else in the film, there is a gradual accumulation of details that clue us in about precisely why people act the way they do. In this particular case, the emotion comes not so much from seeing an old friend again but from the probability of this being the last time they meet.
Julián has been suffering from cancer for a while, and there is little hope left the new round of chemotherapy would keep him alive for much longer. Instead, he has decided to embrace the end and live out his final days far away from the hospital’s oncology department. He is also eyeing the future, and besides organising his funeral, perhaps the most important task is to find a suitable home for his beloved Truman.
While we see the dog only occasionally, he is never far from our minds, as his name pops up in conversations between the two lifelong friends, and we can see Julián’s concern for Truman’s future well-being gnaw at him, likely because it also serves as a constant reminder that Julián will no longer be around.
In the lead, Argentine superstar Ricardo Darín inhabits the lead role like a second skin. Unshaven but with a gravelly voice of gold and piercing blue eyes that can seduce or give a fatal death stare with equal poise, Julián is captivating to watch. Often an enigma, ironically the result of his unexpected and discomfiting forthrightness, he is at his most vulnerable in the company of his son, Nico, and the range of emotions that Darín betrays with amazing subtlety is heartrending.
Tomás, played by Pedro Almodóvar regular Javier Cámara, is an eminently likeable character who gives his old friend a great deal of leeway, even though his initial intention was to talk him out of skipping the chemotherapy. Over time, thanks to some gentle and not-so-gentle reminders from Julián’s cousin, Paula, we realise he feels a measure of guilt over not having visited Tomás more often, despite being in a much better financial situation than his friend the theatre actor.
This is the perfect combination of comedy and tragedy. Despite the grim reality of Julián’s health, his interactions with those around him – many of whom don’t quite know how to react to someone planning for their own imminent demise – produce countless scenes of laughter at the awkwardness into which he rushes head first. Whether it is his questioning of Truman’s veterinarian about dogs’ feelings after the death of their owner or his chance meeting with an old friend whose girlfriend he slept with and for which he now wishes to apologise, the narrative always finds new finds to entertain us with genuinely moving pieces of the puzzle.
But the real magic lies in the fact that many a scene derives its emotional power from us looking back at them with hindsight, perhaps none more beautiful than the aftermath of Julián’s spur-of-the-moment visit to Nico (in retrospect, a perfectly pitched performance by Oriol Pla). Nico is studying in Amsterdam and knows little about his father’s current state. While their interaction in Amsterdam is full of the awkwardness and warmth we would expect, we only realise afterwards what was really going on, and the revelation is enough to send the viewer grabbing unashamedly for the nearest box of tissues. And this is before a mesmerisingly staged final scene that will tear down any remaining diehards’ bulwarks against showing emotion.
While losing some of its texture in the final act, in particular during an ill-fitting scene that sees a major character storm off in anger, Truman is overwhelmingly a very well-controlled mix of comedy and melancholy. The performances are dynamite, with Darín deserving top honours, and the modulated rollercoaster of emotions that we feel heightens our sympathy for the characters.
Country Spain, Argentina
Director(s) Cesc Gay
Screenwriter(s) Cesc Gay, Tomàs Aragay
Directors of Photography Andreu Rebés
Running Time 110 minutes
André Crous is a professional film critic and a member of FIPRESCI. He holds a French honour’s degree, two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. His research examined the works of Francois Truffaut, Mikhail Kalatazov, Martin Scorcese, Paul Thomas Anderson and Michael Winterbottom. He writes about movies in his blog, Celluloid Paradiso and lives in Prague, Czech Republic. | Read More ⟩