Directed by Cesc Gay
Written by Tomas Aragay, Cesc Gay
109 minutes, rated MA 15+
It’s a dirty trick to cast a cute dog at the centre of your film. How are we to resist? The dog in this quietly funny Spanish drama is the title character, a huge brown bruiser whose master is played by the great Ricardo Darin, an Argentine actor with eyes as expressive as his dog’s.
Darin plays Julian, an accomplished Argentine stage actor, but we don’t learn this until halfway through. It’s not really important: more important is that Julian is in his last days on earth. He has decided not to accept more treatment for his lung cancer.
I have a prejudice against movies about cancer. It’s a lazy way to create drama and it usually leads to gushing sentimentality. Yes, there are exceptions. Truman is one of them. It’s about the way people react to a person who’s dying, rather than the death itself, or the cancer that will cause it. That’s a fertile valley to plough because fear of death is an almost taboo subject of drama. Movies prefer death itself, rather than the emotions around it.
A bit like most men. This Spanish director appears to be making men and masculinity his special subject. His last film, A Gun in Each Hand, was a wry comedy about the troubles of a group of middle-aged Spanish men, with these same two actors in lead roles. The pungent comments from the women around them were one of the movie’s highlights, so it’s not like Cesc Gay is into face paint and stamping around the woods on a men’s empowerment weekend. He just thinks men are as funny, complex and troubled as women. They’re especially funny because they ‘never want to talk about it’, whatever it is.
So in Truman, a man leaves his home in Quebec early one morning, after kissing his sleeping kids and wife, and flies to Madrid. Julian is surprised and delighted to see Tomas (Javier Camara), his oldest friend, but he can guess why he has come – and he doesn’t want to talk about it! Tomas is reluctant as well – for obvious reasons.
The film is about the four days in which Tomas visits, his brief attempt to change Julian’s mind and the practicalities of Julian’s decision. He must find a home for Truman, whom he loves like a son; he must choose a casket and a funeral style. Julian proposes they have an impromptu lunch with his son Nico (Oriol Pla), but Nico lives in Amsterdam. Each episode adds emotion, without hysteria. Julian’s composure about his decision enrages his cousin Paula (Dolores Fonzi), who was once involved with Tomas. Nico, the son, can’t even acknowledge that something is happening. A lot of emotions – anger, sorrow, denial – swirl around Julian, but he is quiet and calm throughout. His greatest worry is Truman. In one of the best scenes, Julian asks his vet about how dogs grieve. Not whether they do, but how to recognise the signs. Anyone who has owned a dog will understand that scene.
The casting of Darin and Camara is the director’s best idea. Darin is flinty, aggressive and parched in many of his recent roles; this one has all of that, but adds a sense of warmth and spontaneity, not to mention courage under pressure. Javier Camara, familiar from several of Almodovar’s films, is a gift to comedy, with his owlish face and a look of permanent surprise. Tomas is as emotionally timid as Julian is forthright and direct, but there is never a moment when we doubt that the bond between these two is as deep as it could be.
The result is a film of devastating power, neither mawkishness nor obvious. If one of the concerns in Cesc Gay’s films is how a man should behave in our times, Truman offers some useful lessons. Westerns used to do that, but the paradigm needed renovation. Being strong and silent, never apologising or explaining, the full John Ford Code of Masculinity, isn’t help much these days. Death deserves more grown-up consideration. You will find it here.
It’s a dirty trick to cast a cute dog at the centre of your film. How are we to resist?