Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Necessities of Life?

Editor's Note: An earlier (and quite similar) version of this review appeared at The Film Experience.


by James Hansen

Canadian filmmakers not named Denys Arcand have never done well at the Academy Awards. Since the Foreign Film Oscar has been awarded, Canada has been nominated four times; three of the four films have been directed by Arcand. Canada won the award for Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions in 2003, was nominated in 2006 for Water, but failed to win the award. With the “snub” of Arcand’s Days of Darkness last year, perhaps there is some sort of turning point for Canadian Oscar movies in the future. Luckily for us, the Academy appropriately did not recognize that turning point this year. Although Canada got dangerously close to bucking the trend this year with Benoit Pilon’s The Necessities of Life – a classically egregious piece of Oscar bait that made the Foreign Film shortlist – there was at least some sort of saving grace when the Academy failed to nominate it. Nothing against Canada, but The Necessities of Life is exactly the kind of sentimental (and completely out of touch) foreign film that Oscar usually goes for and that they desperately need to start rejecting.

With about two seconds of character development and random shots of the Far North landscape, The Necessities of Life bounds from dramatic cliche to dramatic cliche throughout the course of its narrative. Taking the 1950s tuberculosis epidemic in the Far North as its starting point, the film follows Tivii, an Inuit who is forced to leave his family when doctors discover he has the disease. Tivii is shipped to a sanatorium in Quebec City where (stop me if you’ve heard this one) he is isolated from his family and unable to communicate with anyone in the predominantly French speaking region. Wind the crank of this formula and out comes the entire checklist of Serious Things To Cover When Reflecting On Death, Life, Communication and Family. Run away. Refuse to eat. Be force fed by nurses. Spit food out. Lead your own march to death.

Funny thing is, all of this is just the first half of the movie. Unconvincing as all of that is, the film does a 180 when Tivii’s nurse brings in an sick orphan, Kaki, who speaks Tivii’s language. Immediately, Tivii’s perspective on life brightens and voila! No more TB. What to do then? Fight the authorities in an attempt to adopt orphan, just as orphan gets progressively weaker. Done, and done.

Besides being extremely familiar material, which inherently makes it a little weaker (or, at least, puts it in a difficult position), Pilon’s direction does nothing to give the story any sense of urgency or importance. (This is a similar predicament to that of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, which is mostly able to work something fresh and exciting about the classic genre material). Tivii loves his family and wants to return to the plains, but the film only shows the family briefly and the land in random cut aways. Nothing establishes any mild reason for us to care, so why should we? Though Natar Ungalaaq does all he can playing Tivii, there just isn’t enough around him to sustain any kind of emotional energy. It all falls flat. From the ground up – script, acting, direction – The Necessities of Life is wholly unconvincing, utterly insipid, and blazingly reductive.

4 comments:

Tiffany said...

Wow. I couldn't disagree with you more about this movie. I loved it and thought it was familiar yet beautiful. To each their own...

Anonymous said...

Since this film was voted the audience favorite at the film festival I attended this summer, someone must have found a reason to care about it. I know I certainly did. You missed the point entirely: this movie was not sentimental, it was truthful and it was empathetic. It is too bad some critics are too "sophisticated" to appreciate a good movie when they see one.

Anonymous said...

Necessities is an emotionally satis
fying version of the Savage in Civi
lization theme. The actor created a fully realized innocent caught in
the machinations of an incomprehens
ible world...his inability to commu
nicate and the impact of his estran
gement was an artistic triumph. The
transition brought about by the boy
which fueled the desire to heal is
a strong message anyone can make use of...even the reviewer. 5 stars

Anonymous said...

Necessities is an emotionally satis
fying version of the Savage in Civi
lization theme. The actor created a fully realized innocent caught in
the machinations of an incomprehens
ible world...his inability to commu
nicate and the impact of his estran
gement was an artistic triumph. The
transition brought about by the boy
which fueled the desire to heal is
a strong message anyone can make use of...even the reviewer. 5 stars