Festival Review: This Beggar’s Portrait

By Kate Foote

Pierre Tetrault paints an intimate portrait of schizophrenia in This Beggar’s Description, following the life of his own brother, Phil Tetrault. The film retraces Phil’s bouts with insanity as well as his poignant stints of clarity. Throughout the film, Tetrault avoids thoroughly exploring his own relationship with his brother, opting instead to play the role of passive observer. While preventing his subject matter from becoming too personal may be somewhat heartless on his behalf, heart wrenching testimonies from his mother, sister, and niece allow audiences to gain the insight needed to sympathize with Phil.

Tetrault outlines Phil’s struggles through battles to stay off the streets, his revolving- door experiences with institutions and shelters, and painstaking attempts at making sense of schizophrenic delusions during moments of lucidity. Watching Phil’s daughter’s embarrassed recollection of pretending she didn’t know him in front of her friends is difficult to take in and excellently portrays the varying effects of the disease on victims’ families.

The film also spotlights Phil’s poetry. While many would shrug his writings off as the rantings of a lunatic on a street corner, they are actually quite ingenious. His words are crafted so masterfully he has become a presence at the streets he inhabits, boasting a fan base including Canadian legend Leonard Cohen.

The great juxtaposition in the film positions the beauty of Phil’s poetry alongside the devastating effects of his schizophrenia. The result is a jarring look at where the line between genius and insanity truly lies. Managing to be both melancholic and enlightening at the same time, This Beggar’s Portrait separates the person from the disease, creating a heartwarming film in a more realistic sense than we are usually accustomed to.

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