Saturday, December 19, 2009

NMAI: Necessities of Life

For one Inuit man, Canada’s vaunted free healthcare becomes a truly soul-deadening experience. While Benoît Pilon’s Necessities of Life (trailer here) made the Academy Awards’ January 2009 shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film, it fell short of a final nomination. However, it has still reached an American audience through IFC’s Festival Direct and special screenings, like this week’s “At the Movies” program at the National Museum of the American Indian in Lower Manhattan.

In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, a tuberculosis epidemic swept through Northern Inuit territory. After a few years of dithering, the Canadian government starting screening the Inuit population and whisking away those who had contracted the disease to hospitals in the south. Such is the fate that befalls Tivii, who suddenly finds himself in a Quebec City sanatorium, away from his wife, daughters, and the only life he has ever known.

If anything, Tivii’s emotional state is making his physical condition worse. He constantly worries how his family will get by without him there to hunt game. He is unaccustomed to southern customs, and with no other Inuit speakers in the institution, communication is impossible. One night, the spiritually dying Inuit makes a break for it, but is eventually found in even worse health than before he left. However, when the compassionate Nurse Carole arranges the transfer of a bi-lingual Inuit orphan to the sanitarium, Tivii’s outlook improves. More than just facilitating communication, the young Kaki becomes someone for Tivii to take care of, which gives him motivation to live.

In truth, sneaking out was hardly a challenge, because Tivii’s hospital is nothing like a prison. It is just different from the way of life he has always known. Granted, the Canadian government’s practices might seem problematic to us earnest multiculturalists, but people of good will have to make the best of bad situations. Refreshingly, Necessities refrains from simplistic characterizations, wherein all Inuit are noble and all whites are evil. In addition to his understanding nurse, Tivii’s French-speaking ward-mate Joseph also tries to reach out and encourage him. In fact, one of the film’s most sympathetic characters is a white Catholic priest (“mon Dieu,” indeed).

It might sound like a joke to say Natar Ungalaaq is one of the most recognizable Inuit actors working in film today, but it happens to be true. In addition to garnering considerable acclaim for his work in the art-house hit The Fast Runner, he has appeared in many high-profile Canadian television productions. He brings a compelling screen presence to Necessities, investing the ailing Tivii with genuine dignity and humanity. Likewise, the sensitive supporting performances, most notably Eveline Gélinas and Denis Bernard as the good nurse and Father, respectively, make Necessities a film of gentle human drama rather than angry political statements.

Quiet and thoughtful, Necessities is a small movie with heart. Well worth checking out, it screens again this afternoon at NMAI and it will be available on Festival Direct through February 9th.