Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Necessities of Life

The initial scenes of The Necessities of Life paint a troubling picture of cultural dislocation. In 1952, Tiivii, an Inuk on Baffin Island, takes his family to a visiting medical ship. Told that he is ill with tuberculosis and cannot leave the ship with the rest of his family, the man is ripped from his home in an instant. Three months later, Tiivii reaches the sanatorium in Quebec City that will become his home for possibly years—or the rest of his life should the disease overtake him. Somewhat ominously, a painter is working on a mural of the Virgin Mary as Tiivii enters the hospital. He looks at it blankly as he walks by, not quite comprehending this strange, new environment.

Unable to speak French, the isolated Tiivii struggles with life in the sanatorium. He spends his time drawing animals, unable to communicate with the other patients or staff. In his loneliness and frustration, as well as fear at the thought of spending years in the hospital away from his family, he runs away one cold night and hides out in an empty shack. Too ill to escape very far, he is eventually discovered and brought back, but he refuses to eat—not out of protest, but simply because he no longer has the will to carry on living in such complete isolation and with so little hope of ever seeing his family again.

Notably, the filmmakers (director Benoit Pilon and writer Bernard Emond) refuse to cast anyone as villains in this situation. In a nuanced and moving performance by Natar Ungalaaq (most famous for his eponymous role in Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner), Tiivii is a desperately lonely figure but also a proud one, ambivalent about the foreign culture he treats with a mixture of wariness and bemusement. The staff and patients at the hospital occasionally betray their own discomfort around a completely alien culture, but the film never slips into broad caricatures of callous bigots. That sort of shorthand characterization is a handy tool for creating some quick drama and buying some sympathy for the protagonist, but it also undermines any serious attempt to deal with cultural conflict.

The closest the film comes to this pitfall is with the obese man who sleeps opposite Tiivii. With a smug smile and mocking demeanor, the man seems the perfect image of a bully, but the film’s approach to the character typifies its thoughtfully empathetic tone: his late-night escape on a drunken bender inspires Tiivii’s similarly self-destructive escape, just as the man’s late-night lonely crying jag echoes Tiivii’s tears in the cabin. Like Tiivii, the man is just another poor soul far away from home and suffering for it, and the film allows this character’s plight to enrich our understanding of the Inuit man’s own sorrow.

There is perhaps no cure for this despair of dislocation, but Carole, the nurse responsible for Tiivii’s welfare, at least manages to pull Tiivii out of his suicide spiral by providing another Inuk patient for companionship—an orphaned boy named Kaki. At this crucial juncture, the film’s tone shifts and its world begins to soften and grow more hospitable. By contrast, early scenes of Tiivii in the sanitarium are almost stultifying in their loneliness and encroaching gloom as the man gets sicker and sicker, slowly relinquishing his grip on life.

But in the presence of Kaki, Tiivii steadily brightens. He becomes more vibrant, showing signs of improving health and making connections with other patients. In what could be considered a quintessentially Quebecois theme, culture and language are seen as necessities of life, and assimilation a kind of death. The process of passing on his culture becomes Tiivii’s way of bringing himself back into the world of the living, and he sees it as Kaki’s only hope for survival as well.

The man is determined to bring the boy—who has spent much of his life away from his people—back into the world of Inuit culture. He carves, explains how to hunt, and tells stories—beautiful, haunting folk tales about boys playing games with demons and invisible men murdered by their wives. Contrasted with the pale, listless Tiivii of the earlier scenes, the lively Tiivii of these storytelling sessions quite vividly illustrates the film’s theme of culture as lifeblood. Not only does Tiivii’s native culture bring him back from the dead, but it also breathes life into this generous and humane film.

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