Directed by Cesc Gay, Truman is a wonderful Spanish film about a couple of old buddies saying goodbye for the last time. One of them is dying of lung cancer, and the film traces their last four days together in Madrid. The good news is that Truman isn’t nearly as miserable as it sounds. In some reviews –and in the ads – I’ve seen it described as a “comedy-drama,” though the comic elements are often hard to discern.
I had a similar problem a few weeks ago with the Icelandic film Rams, the unrelievedly sad tale of two elderly brothers, described by Variety’s critic as “a charmingly understated comedy.” But what’s a comedy, exactly? Or as someone said, what’s in a name? All of us respond to films in our own way, and often I find that the better the film the more responses are possible. Influenced – quite irrationally, of course – by the name of the director, I supposed at first that the two middle-aged blokes in Truman were gay lovers, or former gay lovers, reunited after a long absence. That’s usually the case in movies about devoted male partners. Films about blokes dying while their lovers linger on enjoyed a brief vogue in the early 1990s in the wake of the AIDS epidemic. Perhaps the best remembered AIDS-themed film was Jonathan Demme’s Philadelplia, in which Tom Hanks delivered an Oscar-winning performance as a Manhattan lawyer who takes an unconscionable time a-dying and saying his last farewells.
It must be said Truman is another slow-moving film – though unhurried, or leisurely, might be a fairer term. Not a lot happens for the best part of two hours, but such is Gay’s skill as a director and the richness and subtlety of the screenplay (co-written by Gay and Tomas Aragay) that we are charmed from the start. Julian (Ricardo Darin) and Tomas (Javier Camara) – both vigorously hetero, by the way – have been friends for most of their lives, until Tomas marries and settles in some wintry part of Canada where he teaches at a college. Julian is a stage actor – well-regarded, but not exactly famous, and probably past his prime. Hearing of Julian’s illness, Tomas returns to Madrid and turns up unexpectedly on his friend’s doorstep, ready with offers of sympathy and support. (This reunion is among the film’s most delicately touching and understated scenes.)
The pair spend time together wandering the streets of Madrid, calling at familiar places, bookshops and restaurants. Julian has decided to forgo any further chemotherapy and suspects that Tomas wants to persuade him to resume his treatment. But he’s resolved to die with dignity and makes no secret of his illness. At times he seems almost proud of it. Believing that an old acting colleague is pretending not to notice him in a restaurant, he fronts up to the guy’s table to deliver a friendly greeting and announce that his end is nigh. Odd reactions all round! Perhaps this is one of the film’s comic moments, like Julian’s visit to an undertaker – or mortuary sales attendant (Javier Guttierez) – who briefs him on the relative merits of biodegradable coffins (including one made of salt for burials at sea).
The film is gentle, wistful and wise, with two central performances of surpassing tact and delicacy, in which the lightest gestures – a brief hug, a touch on the shoulder – convey worlds of memory and emotion. Julian has no illusions – “I’m done!” as he puts it, adding in one honest aside that “Each person dies as best they can.” Julian has a caring but somewhat impatient sister, Laura (excellent Dolores Fonzi), and a teenage son Nico, whom he sees on a hurried visit to Amsterdam. Both of them add depth and resonance to the story, and the supporting cast could not be better.
But I’m forgetting the film’s titular hero – Julian’s beloved companion, an ageing, ugly brute called Truman, played by what looked to me like a Doberman-boxer cross and identified in the credits as Troilo. Dogs are notorious for upstaging the human characters in movies, but Truman, like the other performers, knows his place and keeps a respectful distance from the main story. Among Julian’s last duties is finding a suitable new owner for Truman, someone who will dote on him and take him for walks. Various candidates are examined (rather in the manner of theatrical auditions) until the situation is resolved in a final scene that comes perilously close to sentimental excess without overstepping the mark. In that respect it is typical of the film as a whole..
Among Truman’s prospective new owners are a lesbian couple, one of whom refers to her partner as “my wife.” Viewers will be pleased to note that same-sex marriage is legal in Spain. I can recommend Truman to old buddies of either sex, dog-lovers, connoisseurs of Spanish food, advocates of marriage equality, and all who enjoy a good story, however sad, or comic, it may be.
Truman (rated MA15+) is screening in selected cinemas.
Evan Williams reviewed films in The Australian newspaper for 33 years. He is a Life Member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia for services to film criticism and the film industry.In 2015 he received the Geraldine Pascal Lifetime Achievement Award for critical writing.