First things first, this is not a prequel to “Capote.” “Truman” is one of those morbidly tragicomical dramas about a character coming to terms with their imminent death, usually thanks to cancer, and struggling to make amends with people they’ve hurt while tying up loose ends before they kick the bucket. These films are so commonplace, especially within the realm of American indies or mid-budget European dramas, that it’s hard to get through almost any film festival without bumping into one of them. Hence the inclusion of “Truman” in this year’s TIFF.
That being said, “Truman” almost makes itself more distinguishable amongst its many peers thanks to a unique narrative approach to a story we’ve seen a million times before. I say almost, because the film abandons this approach after the first act or so in favor of an episodic and haphazard example of a predictable “last days of cancer” drama. The story focuses on two lifelong friends, the impulsive and semi-narcissistic actor Julian (Ricardo Darin), and the more pragmatic and levelheaded scientist Tomas (Javier Camara). After leaving his life in Barcelona years ago in order to live with his wife in Toronto, Tomas returns to his hometown in order to help Julian tie up loose ends in his life before succumbing to cancer.
These loose ends include saying goodbye to his family and loved ones, arranging his own burial or cremation, and most importantly, finding someone to take care of his beloved dog Truman. That last part will surely seem familiar to fans of Vittorio De Sica’s Italian neorealist masterpiece “Umberto D.” However, co-writer/director Cesc Gay uses the dog subplot as a way of showing that the otherwise headstrong Julian might not be as ready to let go of his life as he appears to be, instead of an indictment of modern culture’s indifference towards the elderly and the needy.
At first, Tomas thinks he’s back in Barcelona to mostly give emotional support to Julian, along with financial and physical assistance. Yet when he finds out that Julian not only chose to forego further chemotherapy in order to more gracefully face his impending mortality, he also seems to be at peace with his fate.
Julian’s at least outwardly nonchalant attitude towards his demise is illustrated perfectly during a scene that immaculately captures a tone of near-absurdist dramedy: Tomas accompanies Julian to a mortuary that looks like an Apple store, where Julian asks the mortician to itemize every single expense so Julian can decide between being cremated or buried. Julian’s deadpan approach to the economic consequences of his death, as if he’s shopping for new furniture for his living room instead of a receptacle to put his own dead body in, not only creates the best scene in the film, but also underlines the fact that along with all the usual emotional heft, a lot of the minor annoying technical details one must deal with during life haunts us as we prepare for death as well.
With Julian apparently at peace with his cancer, Tomas is immediately at a loss regarding his role in the current relationship, and has to look inward to deal with his own emotions regarding his best friend’s passing. And this is where the aforementioned “unique narrative approach” kicks in. During its first act and a chunk of its second act, “Truman” tells the story from the point-of-view of the best friend, instead of the character who’s dying. Imagine a version of “50/50” told from Seth Rogen’s character’s perspective. The first half of the film deals with Tomas struggling with his own emotions regarding this major loss in his life, and that’s a point-of-view that we don’t see much in these films.
Unfortunately, the focus eventually awkwardly shifts back to Julian as the third act is hastily dealt with in one episodic and predictable scene after the other, only to end with the introduction of a wholly unnecessary love affair, as well as some clunky closure for the sub-plot involving Julian’s dog. That being said, thanks to its adult and honest approach to such grim subject matter, as well as the abundant chemistry between the two leads, “Truman” is still leaps and bounds better than recent American indies that turn a serious issue like cancer into something intolerably whimsical. Gay’s picture proves once again that one can construct a comedy out of such material, as long as one respects the subject matter and refrains from being gimmicky in order to feel edgy and cool. [B]