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Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner Movie Review

originally posted many years ago

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner is not an easy film to watch. It’s challenging, but not in the narrative or even the material of the movie. Atanarjuat is so unique, so dynamic, and so fascinating that its richness and complexity fill the screen like the vast, poignant whiteness of its setting.

Too often movies are made with the explicit intention to be original, to rewrite the books. Films that avoid such heavy-handed drive, yet still manage to be wholly new, are the true originals. On the surface, Atanarjuat boasts a three-hour running time, a language new to the cinema, and an entirely unfamiliar landscape. Yet it is the combination of a new culture and the straightforward, bare bones approach of the narrative that make Atanarjuat so memorable.

The story itself is a centuries-old fable told among the Inuit people. It concerns a small village (if you could call it that) where an evil spirit has infested itself in the chief of the village and, subsequently, his family. His son, Oki, wishes to marry Atuat, but she is in love with Atanarjuat-and vice versa. To further complicate things, it appears the evil spirit may have touched Oki’s sister Puja, as well, as she seduces Atanarjuat. The culmination of these events leads to the films climactic final hour.

The plot is deceptively simple, yet the range of emotions that travel among the characters is mesmerizing on two levels: first, the simply enchanting cinematic interpretation; secondly, the foreign actions of the characters. A smile among the Inuit people is different than a smile among American friends. A frown, a scream, a laugh, a joke; all carry different meanings within the isolated context of their world.

Director Zacharias Kunuk, who is from the Northern Territory of Canada, has that rare, underappreciated talent of creating sensational scenarios without warning the viewer-the drama takes place as if in real life. One standout scene is a duel for Atuat between Atanarjuat and Oki-and supervised by the entire village in an igloo. As if this isn’t enough atmosphere, the brutal nature of the fight is shocking without being appalling. The scene is unforgettable.

I’ve seen other films that serve partly as documents of an isolated culture-Werner Herzog loves to make such movies-but I’ve never seen a movie that breathes with the same sort of love and life as Atanarjuat. The film took home the Camera d’Or at Cannes, and dominated the Canadian Academy Awards. The cinematography, by Norman Cohn-virtually the only non-Inuit involved in the picture-is breathtaking. The digital video allows the whites to bleed into each other like one big, blank, bleak canvas; yet the ferocity of the human emotions raging upon it paint one of the most stunning films of the last ten years.

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