Finely wrought drama “The Necessities of Life” was inspired by a tuberculosis epidemic that broke out in the Inuit population of Canada’s Far North in the 1940s and ’50s. Natar Ungalaaq of “The Fast Runner” stars as a stricken man yanked from his isolated home terrain to a Quebec City hospital, where he experiences both profound culture shock and some barrier-transcending human connections. A model of delicate emotional restraint, the handsome pic earns its many lump-in-throat moments. Likely fest kudos should spur offshore tube sales and hopefully some arthouse placements.
It’s 1955, and the arrival of a boat during Baffin Island’s brief summer season of accessibility to the outside (i.e., white) world brings medical personnel who quickly diagnose Tivii (Ungalaaq) with TB. Quicker still, he’s separated from his wife and two daughters.
Three months’ passage later, he lands in Quebec City, where everything seems alien — even the myriad trees that obstruct clear views (unlike the stark, wide-open vistas of home). While no one here speaks Inuktitu, Tivii does grasp that his treatment is expected to last as long as two years.
Despairing, he’s nonetheless somewhat buoyed by the warm concern of fellow patient Joseph (Vincent-Guillaume Otis) and nurse Carole (Eveline Gelinas). His outlook improves when she orchestrates the hospital transfer of Kaki (Paul-Andre Brasseur), a similarly afflicted orphan boy who’s been away from his native culture for many months. That’s time enough to have learned French, so he can act as Tivii’s translator, while the latter takes a fatherly interest in stoking the child’s lapsed knowledge of traditional Inuk customs and myths.
Bernard Emond’s script at first suggests the key element will be cultural insensitivity, the staff and other patients initially showing scant regard for the protag’s fish-out-of-water bewilderment. But that note soon softens as Tivii grows interested in those around him, and vice versa. His polite carnal overture to Carole, a massive etiquette gaffe that would have ruffled no feathers back home, highlights the pic’s gentle humor.
Not everyone here is fated to recover from illness, and “Necessities” knows just how to eke maximum poignancy from its events without seeming to manipulate for tearjerking effect. Ungalaaq’s lovely performance easily sustains viewer involvement.
Direction by Benoit Pilon, hitherto mostly noted for his documentaries, is low-key yet always emotionally precise. Period details are nicely handled, while Michel la Veaux’s lensing (of both urban and spectacular Far North locations) and Robert Marcel Lepage’s keening string score are particularly key contributions.