Is there only one face to truth? Is it acceptable that although doing his job in the best way and saving lives, a person be accused later on of the death of the people he saved? Or are we indeed entitled to ask those to which we confide our lives that they anticipate danger, precede the progress and apply all necessary precaution principles to their work, even when it means taking more chances and being less efficient?
The case of the surgeon Malmros is exemplary of this very contemporary debate which sees families of victims suing governments, medical institutions or individual doctors that failed doing their work, or caused – either by negligence or by lack of knowledge – the opposite result to that they expected (and were expected to obtain). Facing the Truth focuses on three moments of this surgeon’s life: his childhood, his years as a surgeon, and his retired years. After a breathtaking opening sequence of brain surgery, the film cleverly flashes forward to the last years of Malmros’ life: accused by the media to be responsible for the death, by liver cancer, of dozens of patients he had treated (and saved), for having used a medicine with devastating side effects, the old surgeon investigates, with the help of his son, to check if those patients’ lives could have been spared. The beauty of this quest is that it is not meant to defend him before the justice or the media (he was acquitted in court and refuses to address the press) but only to clear his own conscience and check if he did the best he could with the knowledge he had.
In this perspective, the film’s construction, with its accumulation of flashes-back and forward, is a permanent source of surprises and suspense, and contributes to create a deep, polemical character, his wrong sides being constantly underlined. The brilliant composition of Jens Albinus, as Malmros at the time of his professional life, reinforces the unpleasant aspects of the character. It also contributes to avoid that the film be a hagiography or a complaisant view of an existing person who happens to be… the director’s own father.
Choosing not to take part in the conflict, but to present the truth with his various faces, opting for the gray rather than for the black and white (metaphorically speaking as well as in his sober photographic choices), presenting the media’s enquiries as a legitimate right (in the manner of Michael Mann’s “The Insider”), Nils Malmros creates a complex film that will undoubtedly lead to philosophical discussions among the viewers. But despite his objective way to face historical facts and the depiction of an ambiguous character, “Facing the Truth” is however a moving homage to a man, with its Bergmanian conclusion of a father and son reconciliation.
© FIPRESCI 2003