It sounds paradoxical but, if done right, films about a life ending can be the most life-affirming films you'll see. “Truman,” a great success in its native Spain, is definitely done right.
Essentially a two-hander about a terminally ill man and his lifelong best friend, "Truman" swept the 2016 Goyas, Spain's equivalent to the Academy Awards, winning best film, screenplay and director as well as actor and supporting actor for its pair of veteran stars.
That would be Ricardo Darin, Argentina’s biggest attraction, best known in this country for “The Secret in Their Eyes,” and Javier Cámara, who has appeared in several Pedro Almodovar films, including “Talk to Her” and “Bad Education.”
Darin and Camára, who also shared the best actor prize at Spain’s prestigious San Sebastian festival, were director Cesc Gay's first choices, and it’s not hard to see why.
Both accomplished performers for whom not pushing too hard is second nature, they are ideal for this feelingly done, honest and very human story about what is wanted from life as death approaches, a satisfying film that is moving in both expected and unexpected ways.
Though it’s set in Madrid, “Truman” begins not there but on an early morning in Canada, where Tomas (Cámara) is saying goodbye to his wife and young children before taking off for Spain, where he is paying a visit to best friend Julian (Darin).
The visit is a surprise, but the underlying reason for it is not. Julian has found out that the lung cancer he thought had been contained has in fact dangerously metastasized.
More than that, tipped off by Julian’s attractive cousin Paula (Dolores Fonzi), Tomas knows that Julian, sick of hospitals and medical regimens, has decided not to have the cancer treated anymore. “I’m done,” he tells his friend, and it’s clear he means it.
In a lesser scenario, “Truman” would be taken up by Tomas trying to change Julian’s mind, but here Tomas quickly realizes that his friend cannot be dissuaded by him or anyone else.
Instead, Tomas spends the four days he has left of his trip in Madrid accompanying Julian as his friend tries to tie up the loose ends in his life and arrange things ahead of time so that his death is not a burden to the survivors.
Though the two men could not be closer, they are far from identical, which leads to considerable amount of amusing bickering between the two.
Tomas, a scientist back home in Canada, is a planner and worrier, while Julian, an actor who is still working on stage, is dramatic and emotional, someone who enjoys nothing better than making a scene — like the one he creates when he berates colleagues who are avoiding him because of his illness.
The darkly amusing situations the men navigate together include shopping for a casket and dealing with the producer of the play Julian is in. But much of their time is taken up with the character that gives the film its name.
Truman, however, is not a person but a dog, a large and elderly bullmastiff with a mind of its own that Julian, with his son at university in Amsterdam, considers to be his second child.
Completely consumed with Truman's well-being, Julian has a comical conversation with a vet about how the dog will react to his death and even takes meetings with a series of potential adoptive families who would inherit the dog when he dies.
Julian believes that “the only thing that matters in life is relationships,” but because this bromide is harder to put into practice than he anticipates, it’s a pleasure to watch these believable individuals as they try. “Each person dies as best they can,” the actor says, and those indeed prove to be words to live by.
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.
Playing: Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles, Playhouse 7, Pasadena.