The Necessities of Life

Movie review: In 'The Necessities of Life,' an Inuit tale goes south

Louise Marleau and Natar Ungalaaq in "The Necessities of Life," a thoughtful but unengaging story of an Inuit man brought to a TB sanatorium in white Canada.
Louise Marleau and Natar Ungalaaq in "The Necessities of Life," a thoughtful but unengaging story of an Inuit man brought to a TB sanatorium in white Canada. (Ifc Films)
By Dan Kois
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2010

A well-acted but dreary drama of clashing cultures, the Canadian film "The Necessities of Life" is a vivid example of the difference between a worthwhile film and an essential one. It addresses a difficult episode in Canada's history: the mid-century tuberculosis epidemic in the country's far north that led to countless Inuit families being broken up, as patients were sent to sanatoriums across southern Canada. Sensitively written and handsomely filmed, the movie follows Tiivii, an Inuk from Baffin Island, as he's separated from his family and brought to a hospital in Quebec City, where his is the only dark face among the TB sufferers of Room 245.

It's a story worth telling, but you'd be right to wonder if it's a story worth watching. And for the first half of "The Necessities of Life," the answer, alas, is no. Not unless you enjoy watching people who don't speak the same language stare at each other, or love listening to the sound of a dozen guys coughing.

None of his French-speaking wardmates understand Tiivii (played by the Inuit actor Natar Ungalaaq), and the only reason they don't laugh at him more is that laughing tends to make them hack and wheeze. (It is 1952, so the cigarettes many of them smoke don't really help.) Tiivii spends his days drawing pictures of caribou and his nights dreaming of snow and, occasionally, trying to escape.

As Tiivii's health fails, Carole, a kindly nurse (Éveline Gélinas), introduces him to a young patient, Kaki, who has also been taken from the north. His budding paternal relationship with Kaki, who's torn between the ways of the white world and the ways of his home, invigorates Tiivii -- and, to some extent, the film.

Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine what audience might find "The Necessities of Life" essential viewing. Even viewers who are specifically fascinated by Canada's Inuit peoples will likely come away disappointed by the film, which makes Tiivii a generic fish out of water for much of its length. Better to rent 2001's "The Fast Runner" ("Atanarjuat"), which also starred Ungalaaq -- and has higher stakes, a more exciting story, and glorious shots of the endless northern vistas of which "The Necessities of Life," stuck in a Quebec hospital, only gives a glimpse.

None of this is to say that "Necessities" is a bad movie. It's thoughtful and, especially at its end, quite touching. But that can't make up for its pedestrian direction (by Benoît Pilon) or its lack of originality. Of course, Tiivii and the other patients on his ward eventually bond. There is sadness, and tragedy, and even a touch of comedy when Tiivii applies the straightforward courtship practices of the Inuk to nurse Carole. But there are precious few surprises. Tiivii's journey is a daunting one, but "The Necessities of Life" doesn't offer enough incentive for moviegoers to accompany him.

Kois is a freelance reviewer.

* 1/2 Unrated. At the Avalon. Contains one subtitled vulgarity and extremely violent coughing. In French and Inuktitut with English subtitles. 102 minutes.

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