Among the many horrors of death is that it has almost no effect on daily life. The end of an entire universe of an interior human life looms, yet the rote mundanities continue. Commerce endures. Jobs still make their demands. Goods and services must be bought. Pets must be fed.
In keeping with that, Julián (Ricardo Darín) finds himself searching Madrid for an adoptive family for his dog, even as he stares down terminal cancer.
When Truman opens, Julián’s long-time friend Tomás (Javier Cámara) has just flown from Canada to spend a few days with his dying compatriot. Julián is an actor working the evening shows for a local theater, and the two men spend their days interviewing strangers. There’s a pleasant lesbian couple who just adopted a young boy from Russia, and hope the dog’s presence will help the child adapt to his new circumstances. Then there’s an upper-class woman who’s a bit too put-together for her own good, and who’s hostile to the Asian waiter at the restaurant.
At first, the purpose of Tomás’ visit is not entirely clear. The script, written by Tomàs Aragay and Cesc Gay, relies on consistently-paced conversational episodes to unfold its story. Tomás is clearly there for some unfolding crisis, and a decision by Julián of which he does not fully approve. It takes a few scenes to reveal the illness to the audience. And an awkward visit to the doctor makes it clear Julián is out of options: further treatment could give him a little more time, but he doesn’t want to put up with the drugs and the tubes and the hospital visits any longer.
In between all this, the two friends also visit the company that will provide Julián’s coffin, or the the urn for his ashes, depending. They visit the theater for Julián’s performances, they have lunch, and bump into some old acquaintances. An impromptu flight to Amsterdam to have lunch with Julián’s son, Nico (Oriol Pla), features prominently in the plot. And more than once they have drinks with Julián’s cousin Paula (Dolores Fonzi), whose emails were what finally convinced Tomás to show up.
Paula loves her cousin fiercely, but also resents the strength of the relationship he shares with his friend, despite the fact that Paula has been there for him constantly and Tomás has not. On top of that, Paula and Tomás have their own issues to sort out, which the film explores with a super-subtle slow burn.
Like a lot of European movies, Truman features no great revelations or overwhelming drama. It’s an observational work, content to watch regular human beings grapple with the inevitable and universal experience of mortality. As often as not, the script focuses on what is not said: the realities Julián cannot bring himself to speak with his son, or the emotions Tomás cannot bare to reveal to his friend or to himself.
Gay, who also directs, relies on simply staged takes, often concentrating on body language to convey emotion. There’s an uncomfortable scene where a couple pretends to not see Julián at a restaurant; after he confronts them, you can see their forms in the blurred background, and the husband’s chagrin and humiliation are obvious in the way he rubs the back of his neck.
The relationship between the two friends is also central. Julian is slovenly, moody, and overly involved with his own dramatic self-image. But he confronts his situation with admirably bluntness. He is forthright with most people, willing to gently avoid the topic of illness and impending demise, but diving right in when necessary. It’s only with those closest that Julián’s courage fails him, and he must rely on his friend’s prodding.
As for Tomás, he is reserved and patient with his friend’s faults, though still a bit undone by Julián’s unconventionality. While certainly not free of sin himself, Tomás slips comfortably into the role of the mature family man, and his faith in Julián’s better instincts stands his friend in good stead. Both men share the easy rapport of mutual knowledge established by time. They instinctively know when to call each other’s bullshit and when to let it slide, and negotiated all that with a sardonic and ribbing humor.
Ultimately, the movie goes where it must. The characters are not forced to evolve by the conventions of the plot, but by the pressure they apply on one another, driven by the needs inherent in their natures. Truman’s final fate is the most obviously sensible arrangement. But it’s touching how both Julián and Tomás have to feel their way to it. Indeed, it’s not obvious Tomás realizes what’s going on until the moment actually arrives.
Truman finds its heroism in the everyday: The way normal human beings refuse to let moments of bitterness be the last word, their willingness to accept one another’s absurdities, and their discovery that some things do not need to be said after all.