Canadian cinema has long dealt with themes of isolation and colliding cultures, but rarely does a film capture these with such simple beauty as The Necessities of Life. Set in 1952, Benoît Pilon’s film explores an Inuit man’s profound culture shock as he’s plucked from his homeland.
Necessities tells the story of Tivii (Natar Ungalaaq), an Inuit hunter stricken with tuberculosis. When he is admitted to a Quebec City hospital for long-term treatment, Tivii struggles with the separation from his family and his home. Though comforted by a caring nurse Carole (Eveline Gelinas) and an earnest friend, Joseph (Vincent-Guillaume Otis), Tivii is subject to ridicule and insensitivity from the other patients. Although he develops some friendships, Tivii is desperately homesick for Baffin Island, a land he claims has everything one could ever need, and as the film’s title suggests, all the necessities of life.
Best known for his francophone documentaries, Pilon has selected a fine cast and Ungalaaq is a compelling lead. His quiet composure and even voice is magnetic. Though his eyes are often still, they convey subtle emotions with ease. A carver by trade, Ungalaaq puts his talents to good use, constructing intricate wooden mementos from his homeland. Gelinas’ nurse Carole is patient and understanding as she tends to Tivii, though she’s not afraid to be firm. One bright cast member is Paul-André Brasseur, who plays Kaki, an Inuit boy invited to translate for Tivii and help him adjust to his surroundings. Brasseur’s Kaki is young and innocent yet also shows maturity. Although he’s also a patient confined to the hospital, Kaki knows how the world works.
Bernard Émond’s screenplay is elegant. The dialogue is clear and short – every word is necessary. The film highlights themes of intolerance and staying true to heritage, but Émond doesn’t thrust these at the audience, instead they subtly emerge. One minor flaw is that the translation blurs the characters’ use of both French and Inuktitut languages. Sharing these languages are key moments in the film, yet the significance is lost on English audiences.
The cinematography captured the lonely mood of the piece. Lingering shots of Tivii walking alone show his isolation, and some handheld camerawork added movement and interest in the hospital scenes.
Pilon and his team create a beautiful soundscape for the film. Chilling silence and natural sound mark Tivii’s arctic home (to which he travels in his dreams and imagination). Blaring boat horns and other abrasive noise helps the audience understand Tivii’s shock and frustration with the white man’s world. A constant element in the film is the use of breath and coughing to distinguish between Tivii’s home and the hospital, while deep string music rounds out the soundtrack.
The Necessities of Life is a beautiful homegrown film that entertains, yet also pays homage to our culture. Necessities shows that sometimes simplicity is best, and that films don’t have to be flashy to make an impact. As Canadians, it’s a work to be proud of.