During one of my first visits to Montreal's Royal Victoria Hospital, I saw a government van unloading in the parking lot. Getting out of the van were several Inuit women, looking around themselves with dazed and worried eyes, and I immediately wondered if they had been sent to southern Quebec for medical treatment, and now found themselves in an utterly alien world.
"Ce qu'il faut pour vivre," ("Necessities of Life"), a new film by Quebec director Benoit Pilon, tells the story of Tivii, an Inuit hunter who contracts tuberculosis and is sent to a Quebec sanitorium in 1952. The movie had its international premiere here on Monday night, with the director and cast present; in fact we arrived and walked into Place des Arts just behind them, without knowing exactly who was who - everything is pretty low-key here in Montreal! And it wasn't until today that I realized the star of the movie, Natar Ungalaaq, is the same man who stunned many of us with his performance in the "Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner" a few years ago.
It's a simple story, really -- you can probably imagine its trajectory yourself -- but the film is beautifully directed, strong, and compelling, anchored by the convincing performances of Ungalaaq, who loses his will to live when he cannot communicate with the French doctors, nuns, and fellow patients who surround him, and Evelyne Gelinas as the nurse who takes this unusual patient on as her personal responsibility. Like its title, the movie asks the viewers what would be necessary for us to live, and that is the question I still find myself musing two days later. But in addition to the more obvious cultural and personal challenges depicted in the film, I found it fascinating to simply see this careful portrayal of the Catholic Quebec of the 1950s, because that too has changed so utterly -- perhaps even more than lives of the Inuit themselves.
The audience, which packed Theatre Maisonneuve on Monday night, gave the film, director, and cast a standing ovation. The film will certainly be a strong contender (and local favorite) for the competition prize here at the festival.