Tuesday, January 20, 2009
James Hansen here from Out 1 continuing my reports/reviews of some of the films on the Best Foreign Language Film shortlist.
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, were nominated in 2006 for Deepa Mehta's Water, and Oscar finally snubbed Arcand last year for Days of Darkness. We should all hope this trend of "snubs" continues with Canada’s submission this year, recently picked up by IFC Films, Benoit Pilon’s The Necessities of Life – a classically egregious piece of Oscar bait. Much to my chagrin and dismay, Canada is on the cusp of a nomination for the film, which only further entrenches the proof inadequacy of the Foreign Language Film committee.
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. 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 in here establishes any mild reason for us to care, so why should we?
From the ground up – script, acting, direction – The Necessities of Life is wholly unconvincing, utterly insipid, and blazingly reductive. If the film seemed slightly heart-felt (which it doesn’t) I’d give it a little more of a pass, but (and I’m not just trying to be mean here) I honestly cannot believe anyone would fall for this. Let’s just hope a nomination is not in store. Otherwise, it’s a very bad sign for some of the sharp, edgy, and modern foreign films that were finally included on the shortlist this year.
(If you saw this film and really loved it, I would really like to here what worked for you in the comments. I really am interested to here some different responses.)