Published Sep 16, 2015Fifteen years ago, Spanish director Cesc Gay made a minor international splash — mostly within the lexicon of queer cinema — with the unsentimental teen coming-of-age drama, Nico and Dani. It was rough, loose and unconventional, being noted mostly for its naturalistic performances and its progressive handling of mixed adolescent desires.
With Truman, his seventh feature film, he's crafted an extremely accessible, mainstream narrative with international commercial appeal. Though there are some overlapping thematic consistencies (relationship complications and dealing with uncharted territories), they're extremely different stylistically and tonally, demonstrating the evolution of a director who's trying to communicate their message — and tell their story — to a larger audience.
While most of Gay's features have tackled bourgeois anxieties and disappointments, having sort of a Spanish Cédric Klapisch ensemble vibe, Truman concerns itself with the topic of death. Julián (Ricardo Darin), an actor of note, has given up on his fight against cancer. Doctors indicate that they might be able to prolong his life a bit with additional chemo treatments, but, for Julián, quality of life ultimately trumps time. In fact, his level of certainty and the cool, calculated manner in which he plans to close the many doors in his life surprises his long-estranged childhood best friend, Tomás (Javier Cámara), whose long-delayed visit from Canada comes at the time of this decision.
The title refers to Julián's dog. With his son off in Amsterdam studying, the only real concern for our rather lonely protagonist is who will look after his dog when he dies. Much of the story preoccupies itself with this subject, as it's a very overt metaphor for the false confidence Julián projects into the world about his disposition. While he seems keen to find a home for his pet, the actuality of giving Truman up is much more difficult than he could have predicted. At its core, Truman is about the messiness of death and the unpredictable complexity of human relationships; it's about how things that seem certain in theory are never so in execution.
Having an old friend show up as an instigator for narrative progress is quite effective. It allows us to interpret this situation through the eyes of Tomás, who convinces his friend to fight and allows viewers some insight into the many experiences and disappointments of the decades passed that the two old friends discuss. And even though Truman is a deeply sad movie — something that's heightened by Darin's touchingly restrained performance as a man barely holding it together but refusing to show any external weakness — it's also often quite light-hearted, taking logical sidebar looks at idiosyncratic human behaviours and the playful jabbing of two old friends.
Gay, having an abundance of experience with conversation dramas, has a masterful eye when it comes to capturing the essence of a friendship, and Cámara and Darin have a natural ease with each other that sells the situation. This is of particular importance, as the majority of this well-paced, consistently engaging film follows them to various locations — and even to the Netherlands — detailing their body language and interaction quite intimately.
If there is an issue with this humanist drama, it's that the basic premise and most of the ideas in Truman are very familiar. Slightly comedic adult dramas about friends reconnecting or setting off an adventure when mortality starts circling are a dime-a-dozen, and Truman doesn't break the mould of this cinematic cliché. But then, nor does it try to; it delivers exactly what a moderately discerning viewer would expect of a premise like this, but it does so quite effectively and with minimal condescension, which is quite commendable.