Call it a comedy of melancholy, and you won’t be far off the mark. “Truman,” Spanish filmmaker Cesc Gay’s wise, wistful and well-observed film about two friends enjoying a final reunion in the shadow of impending death, is by turns amusing and affecting — and quite often both at once — as it focuses on a middle-aged actor’s efforts to put his affairs in order before he faces the final curtain. It should travel far beyond the fest circuit, and find receptive audiences wherever and however it is shown, for it speaks, gently yet directly, in a universal language.
“Each person dies as best he can.” That’s how Julian (Ricardo Darin, “The Secret in Their Eyes”) sums up his attitude as he faces his imminent demise in his adopted home base of Madrid. An Argentine transplant, he evidently has enjoyed years of steady of employment, if not superstardom, as a working actor in Spanish film and stage productions. Now that he has been confronted with a real-life plot twist — a diagnosis of terminal cancer — he has opted to write his own last act by foregoing additional treatments that his doctor admits will only delay the inevitable.
Enter Tomas (Javier Camara), Julian’s longtime buddy, now a college instructor in Canada. Julian is welcoming, but also a bit wary, when Tomas unexpectedly arrives for a visit. He suspects, and not without cause, that his friend has flown in to talk him into resuming cancer treatments. But Tomas realizes early on — obviously not for the first time in their relationship — that he’s unable to change his friend’s mind once it is firmly set.
And so the two men spend what each of them knows will be a kind of last holiday together, dividing their time over a four-day period between long conversations in bars and cafes (where Tomas always picks up the tab) and Julian’s sporadic attempts to tie up loose strings before he makes his exit. Julian is especially concerned about what might happen to Truman, his faithful, sad-eyed boxer — he even questions a veterinarian as to whether dogs grieve when their masters pass away — and spends an inordinate amount of time “auditioning” new owners for his pet. (A pet, it should be noted, who doesn’t appear all that much longer for this world than his master.)
“Truman” proceeds along a rambling path at a leisurely tread, with occasional detours (including an impulsive visit to Amsterdam to visit Julian’s college-age son) and sporadic rest stops. But the passing of time rarely makes itself felt, for director Gay, working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Tomas Aragay, gives his audience such personable traveling companions for this seriocomic journey.
Darin gives a slyly robust performance as Julian, vividly conveying the profoundly mixed emotions of a man who, after a lifetime of excess and misbehavior, has only recently begun to feel unfamiliar pangs of regret. At times, Julian seems almost comically eager to make amends for past deeds, such as when he apologizes to an acquaintance for wrecking his marriage by sleeping with the guy’s wife. (As it turns out, Julian may have done the guy a favor.) At other times, however, he sounds bitterly resentful that his illness makes others uncomfortable. “People don’t know what to say to me,” he tells Tomas, sounding more sad than angry. “They smell death, and they get scared.”
As Julian struggles — largely successfully — to maintain his air of good-humored but steel-willed resignation, Darin smoothly maneuvers through a gauntlet of mood swings, offering only fleeting glimpses of the anxiety behind the determined front. Camara’s more low-key portrayal of Tomas is as apt and effective counterpoint, so that Tomas serves as sounding board and sympathetic onlooker (and, yes, audience surrogate) while at the same time registering his own emotional turmoil as he bids a long goodbye to a treasured friend.
Excellent supporting players orbit around the two stars of “Truman.” Among the standouts: Dolores Fonzi as Julian’s deeply concerned but not infinitely patient sister; Javier Gutierrez as a briskly efficient mortuary sales representative in the film’s most darkly comical sequence; and Jose Luis Gomez as the theatrical producer who reluctantly fires Julian from his current, and likely final, acting gig.
Lenser Andreu Rebes gives Madrid — and Amsterdam — a warmly inviting, even romantic look, as though he were suggesting that, all things considered, some places are more attractive than others when you are choosing the locations for your grand finale.