“Truman” is a great Spanish film that has taken 18 months to arrive in the United States. Last year, at the Goya Awards (the Spanish Oscars), it cleaned up — best picture, actor, supporting actor, director and original screenplay. Directed by Cesc Gay, it’s a small, perfect movie whose specialness is apparent from its first minutes.
Mentioning the awards upfront may seem like a lazy way of establishing a movie’s quality, but in this review it’s a delaying tactic, used out of fear that once you know what this movie is about, you won’t want to see it — even though you do, you really do. It’s about a four-day reunion between old friends, one who lives in Canada, the other in Barcelona. In the first scene, Tomas (Javier Camara) flies from Canada and just shows up at the door of Julian (Ricardo Darin).
The reason for the visit is that Julian has some kind of terminal illness, unnamed at first, though you can guess. And here is where it absolutely must be said and then emphasized that “Truman” is nothing like all the lousy illness-based movies that we have all been seeing for years. Nor is it like the mediocre ones that become borderline effective, either by being maudlin or by being funny — either in a phony tear-and-a-smile sort of way, or a phony outrageous way.
“Truman” is serious, and the writing, direction and performances earn that seriousness. Inevitably, it’s a film about death, except that no one dies over the course of it. Really, it’s much more a film about life, friendship and the things that matter. And when it’s funny — here and there, it’s very funny — the humor isn’t forced, strained, bitter or weird. The humor just presents itself the way humor does in life, seemingly out of nowhere, rising up and then receding naturally.
You may already know Camara from his appearances in several Pedro Almodovar movies and for his magnificent performance a few years back in “Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed” (about a schoolteacher obsessed who meets John Lennon in 1966). Camara has a fumbling humanity, a purity in his imperfection that’s right for Tomas, who arrives in Barcelona not sure he wants to be there. For whatever else it is, illness is socially awkward, and Tomas wears his awkwardness on his sleeve.
Darin has more natural authority as Julian, an actor and former matinee idol used to being the most forceful and charming person in every room. Though it’s never explicitly stated, Darin’s performance suggests that Julian’s illness has reinforced his innate tendency to be honest, so that every encounter is free of pretense. For the audience, this means a succession of unusually authentic moments, scenes that cut to the essence of whatever is going on.
Curiously, and fortunately, this does not translate into lots of moments of people discussing their feelings. On the contrary, much is conveyed without words. One example of many comes when the two men pay a surprise visit to Julian’s son, a college student. Julian doesn’t want to alarm his son about his condition, but it becomes very clear to the audience, if not Julian, that the son can read between the lines. This results in a moment of powerful emotion in which only the audience knows precisely what’s going on.
The title, “Truman,” refers to Julian’s bullmastiff, an ungainly but devoted animal that he loves like a second son. Part of the project of the men’s four days together, though encompassing a fairly small amount of screen time, involves Julian’s effort to find a new home for his dog. Darin is so open and uncovered in his concern for the dog (though dignified and never overplaying it) that Truman becomes a major concern for the audience as well.
Darin, an Argentine actor, really must be seen in “Truman.” There is a level at which acting becomes sublime, at which it becomes a testament to human capacity, both in what it is and what it depicts. You know it when you encounter it — the Hallelujah Chorus, Greta Garbo’s face, Ron Swoboda’s catch in the 1969 World Series …
There are things in life and art that are simply so beautiful that they must be witnessed, and Darin’s performance in “Truman” is one of those.
In Spanish with English subtitles
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