The Necessities of Life/Ce qu’il faut pour vivre (Benoît Pilon, 2008): Canada

Reviewed by Linda Schad. Viewed at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

The Necessities of Life (Ce qu’il faut vivre) is documentary filmmaker Benoît Pilon’s feature film directorial debut; nevertheless, it has already garnered the 2008 Most Popular Film and Special Grand Prize of the Jury at the Montreal World Film Festival, the 2009 FIPRESCI Prize at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, and was added to Canada’s short list of possible candidates for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (unfortunately, it didn’t make into the final selection).

Inspired by an actual tuberculosis epidemic that broke out among Canada’s indigenous population during the 1940s and 1950s, The Necessities of Life is a beautiful fish-out-of-water drama about an Inuit hunter, Tivii (Natar Ungalaaq), who in 1952 is suddenly ripped away from everything he knows–his home, his family, and his culture–after he tests positive for this disease. He pleads to the officials, “If I leave, who will hunt for my family?” But no one listens or cares. After a three-month journey south aboard a medical ship, Tivii finds himself in a strange, foreign world of isolation.

The mysterious destination is a sanitarium in Quebec City, where towering trees obstruct the horizon, green grass covers the landscape, and no one speaks his language–not the nuns, the doctors, nor the staff. However, Tivii is clever; and through gestures, he finally understands that his medical treatment may take as long as two years.

As time passes, Tivii grows increasingly depressed and decides to stop eating so he can simply die. However, his kind-hearted nurse, Carole (Eveline Gélinas), comes to his rescue when she realizes Tivii’s TB is not the biggest threat to his well-being. Carole orchestrates a hospital transfer for Kaki (Paul-Andre Brasseur), a young Inuit orphan boy who is similarly affected, but is able to speak both Inuktitut and French. Not only does Kaki act as translator, but he also restores Tiivi’s will to live.

Having been forced to abandon his wife and two small daughters back home, and desperate for a sense of family, Tivii takes a fatherly interest in the boy, and begins to instruct his surrogate son in a culture the youth only vaguely remembers. A bond quickly forms, and Tivii decides to adopt the boy, dreaming of the day when they are both well enough to travel home to Baffin Island together. But the Canadian government has other ideas about this plan.

Despite the inherent heaviness of this storyline (I suggest bringing at least two hankies), there are also generous passages of humor that keep this film from sinking into a maudlin mire of sentimentality. One fun but telling scene occurs when Tivii asks Kaki where the water flowing from the taps comes from. Kaki tells him, “From the river.” Tivii next asks, “Where does the water in the toilets go?” Kaki replies, “Into the river.” After an extended pause, Tivii then asks, “and the fish I just ate?” . . . “The river.”

The film hangs together mostly on the performance of Natar Ungalaaq (also the lead in The Fastest Runner). His acting style is subtle and understated, yet his extremely expressive face has the ability to convey a broad spectrum of emotions without speaking a word. In a Q&A session after one screening, I overheard director Pilon state that he intentionally allowed the camera to linger upon Ungalaaq, giving respect to the cultural differences in the delivery of [Inuit] dialogue and to maintain Tivii’s point of view throughout the film, instead of focusing upon the film’s main, wider (predominantly white) audience’s need for a “white” protagonist with whom to identify (which is precisely why I enjoyed this film).

I also love the way cinematographer Michel La Veaux used colored filters.  In the beginning of the film, red filters are employed to depict the icy far north, with it’s warm sunrises and close-ups of cooking flames, to be where Tivii’s heart and home are located, while the scenes in the south, in and around the sanitarium are shoot in cooler blue tones to convey Tivii’s feeling of strangeness and isolation. Nevertheless, as the film progresses, the colors gradually blend and become more natural, just as Tivii learns to integrate his native world with the white man’s world.

This film is not without its clichés, and at times seems more like a TV movie of the week. However, every scene that includes Ungalaaq is pure magic. Screenwriter Bernard Emond, who has spent years living in the Far North among these proud people, has managed to capture lightning in a bottle with this tale.

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