Truman

August 12, 2016
Ricardo Darín in 'Truman' (2015)
Ricardo Darín in 'Truman' (2015)

Following Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship, we now have a film from Spain that might credibly be called Death and Friendship. In fact it’s called Truman, after a maudlin old pooch kept by a lead character, but death is a constant presence in this story.

We see such an astonishing quantity of death at the movies it’s almost surprising to realise how casually we accept the endless round of murders, accidents and mass exterminations. In the moronic superhero genre it’s common for entire cities to be vaporised by some über villain. In the most recent Star Wars film a planet is incinerated.

One wonders what this frivolous attitude to life and death is doing to the minds of movie-goers. Do they see incidents on the nightly news as merely another form of Hollywood stunt? It’s an old question as to whether too much movie violence leads to psychic desensitisation, but there has never been a satisfactory answer.

The confusion is at its worst in movies such as Down Under, a new Australian comedy that supposedly demonstrates the futility of racism. Instead it demonstrates the inability of writer-director, Abe Forsythe, to distinguish what is humorous from what is merely nasty and stupid. If you think it’s hilarious to see people getting beaten with baseball bats and shot, you’ll have a ball with this latest proud offering of the local film industry.

Truman, a story all about death, is genuinely funny in a low-keyed manner. We may not be shaking with laughter, but there’s rarely a moment when the viewer can’t smile, albeit with mixed emotions. Director, Cesc Gay, gives proper weight to the concept of death, and manages to be both serious and amusing – a combination that seems like oil on water for so many Australian filmmakers.

The film begins with Javier Cámara’s Tomás leaving his home in wintery Canada, and taking the long flight to Spain, where he knocks at the door of his old friend, Julián (Ricardo Darín). It’s a warm reunion, although we realise straight away that Julián is on the skids. It takes about 15 minutes before it is revealed that he has inoperable lung cancer and is planning his departure from this world. I hope 15 minutes is brief enough not to count as a spoiler because Truman is not a suspense thriller.

It would be more accurate to describe it as a buddy film – a return to the themes of masculine insecurity explored by Gay in his previous feature, A Gun in Each Hand (2012). We can empathise with Tomás’s awkwardness as he tries to understand how Julián is feeling and respond in the appropriate manner. It’s not a simple matter. While Julián insists on being cheerful and philosophical there is no telling when he will drop the mask and grow bitter. He has an unsettling way of springing surprises on Tomás, as if he can only go through the motions of settling his affairs if he doesn’t discuss them beforehand.

During the days they spend together Tomás is wary of triggers that will cause changes in his friend’s mood. Julián is upset when ignored in a bar by friends who don’t know what to say to him any more, and touched by the good wishes of another acquaintance who owes him no favours. He could prolong his life with more chemotherapy but has decided that it is better to vanish quickly. His main concern is to find a new home for Truman, for whom he cares more than almost anyone else.

Julián’s other strong affection is for his son, Nico (Oriol Pla) who is studying in Amsterdam. On an impulse the two friends fly to the Netherlands to acquaint Nico with the truth of his father’s condition, but the trip doesn’t go as planned.

Julián’s attitude towards his illness is infuriating to his cousin, Paula (Dolores Fonzi), his closest relative in Madrid. She sees his unwillingness to extend his life as a kind of betrayal, as if he is being callous to those who care most for him. Tomás can’t seem to decide if Julián is being brave or selfish, as the situation is completely unfamiliar to him. He has lived in Canada for so long that he is struggling to recapture the feelings that previously existed between him and his friend.

If Truman is the only being to whom Julián can give unconditional love and devotion it is because all of his human relationships are scarred by guilt and shame. Only a dog forgives every slight and every betrayal, or puts up with every black mood. So while he can make arrangements for his funeral in a business-like manner, Julián agonises about what to do with his old companion. No potential owner seems quite right because a brand new household will contain nothing of Julián, no residual memory of the years they spent together. This is the part of himself that Julián truly values, the last ineradicable trace to which he clings. We begin to realise that only when Julián can say farewell to Truman can he be serious about taking leave of life.

Truman
Directed by Cesc Gay
Written by Tomas Aragay & Cesc Gay
Starring Ricardo Darín, Javier Cámara, Dolores Fonzi, Oriol Pla
Spain/Argentina, rated MA 15+, 108 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 13th August, 2016.