By Brendan Lucas
In Tetrapharmakos, or Four-Part Cure, the Greek philosopher Epicurus assures his followers that “what is terrible is easy to endure.” With its focus on simple pleasures, the value of enduring friendships, a withdrawal from public life, and a rational approach to life and death, Cesc Gay’s Truman (2015) embraces an Epicurean view in its depiction of a man’s waning life. An aesthetically restrained film, Truman asks profound questions about the value of prolonging life and portrays the social fallout of a dying man’s experiment in frank, radical honesty.
Married with children and living in suburban Winnipeg, Spanish expatriate Tomás (Javier Cámara) travels to Madrid for a surprise visit with an old friend, aging theater actor Julián (Ricardo Darín). Diagnosed with likely-terminal lung cancer, Julián decides to forego additional treatment. Past his prime and resigned to his fate, he instead chooses to spend his remaining time making his final arrangements and bidding farewell to friends and family - though not before saying his piece and defending his controversial decision to those that will survive him.
Faced with a life that he believes is no longer worth living, Tomás helps Julián navigate the social awkwardness of this disclosure to his friends and loved ones, who prioritize their own hurt feelings and indignation upon learning of his willful refusal to continue treatment; when confronted with death, his friends and family project their own discomfort, as well as the sting of perceived rejection. Divorced and with an adult son living abroad, one of Julián’s only remaining immediate family members is his dog Truman. His repeated attempts to place Truman with a suitable adoptive family humorously symbolizes the absurdity of planning his own funeral, of renouncing his own life and yet trying to control the life of another. As dogs are said to reflect their owners, Truman represents a beautiful combination of the friends’ best attributes - Julián is fundamentally brave and lives unashamedly, while Tomás, generous to a fault, gives of himself without expecting anything in return. Truman is impulsive and unselfconscious, yet - like all beloved pets - gives more than he takes.
Spanish cinema is no stranger to dealing with death in light of incapacitation. Alejandro Amenábar’s The Sea Inside (Mar Adentro, 2004) explored the real life efforts of Spanish right-to-die activist and quadriplegic Ramon Sampedro. Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her (Hable con ella, 2002), which also stars Javier Cámara as an obsessive caregiver to a comatose patient, examines the fate of those who are kept alive indefinitely with characteristic darkness and sensationalism. In this tradition, Truman asks: when faced with dismal odds against a terminal disease, is fighting the good fight done for the benefit of the patient, or out of an obligation to our family and social circles? When approaching almost certain death, are we in some ways coerced into clinging to life because it is more acceptable than admitting defeat?
Truman affords a humane glimpse of a looming philosophical and emotional question, one that may become increasingly common as popular attitudes about life in our modern world shift from “quantity” to “quality.”
- Brendan Lucas