Weather Alert  

Special Weather Statement issued January 24 at 5:09AM EST by NWS Upton NY Light snow early this morning may bring a coating of snow. Slippery travel is possible and motorists should use extra caution if driving this morning as temperatures are below freezing. The light snow should end between 7 am and 9 am.


by Ben Kenigsberg The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) is both grand and visceral -- it overwhelms you at once with the beauty of its landscapes and with its intense physicality. ...

Print Email

by Ben Kenigsberg

The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat)

is both grand and visceral -- it overwhelms you at once with the beauty of its landscapes and with its intense physicality. It's sort of like

Gone with the Wind

mated with

Pather Panchali



and relocated to the Canadian Arctic, if such a thing can be pictured.

The Fast Runner

is the first film shot in the Inuktitut language; it was made by a mostly Inuit crew with an entirely Inuit (and largely non-professional) cast. It's also filmed without the usual movie-epic cues -- for the most part, there isn't sweeping music, and the camera only occasionally pauses to admire the horizon.

The picture is so exotic that it's easy to be blindsided by its originality. The first time I saw the film, I came away impressed by its imagery, its setting and its general mood. It's astounding that a three-hour movie could even be made in such an inhospitable location.

The film has more depth than it initially reveals. It is, in fact, a fable about the importance of family and friendship in a land where people depend on one another for their survival. But that makes the film sound more simplistic than it is. Even the ostensibly villainous characters in

The Fast Runner

have the ability to feel compassion, and the more heroic characters have the capacity for betrayal.

The first section of the film is a bit baffling; I needed a second viewing in order to understand fully what had happened. But the first half-hour, which tells the story of the father of the main character, is integral to the structure of the whole.

The Fast Runner

is, in part, about passing traditions and values from one generation to another, and in order to get the full impact of the film, one needs to understand how it comes full circle. The last shot shows us a young Inuit, watching the elders counteract the spell that a shaman has cast upon the village. The child will one day tell the story to his children, who will grow up in the same area, living according to the same values.

It sounds fundamental, but because of the main characters' disloyalty to each other -- which upsets the natural balance of the community -- the film's sense of renewal is remarkably poignant.

The Fast Runner

is itself based on an Inuit folktale passed from one generation to the next by oral tradition. The film is set 2,000 years ago, according to the press notes. (There would be no other way of knowing; the movie has a timeless quality.)

The main character is Atanarjuat, or the Fast Runner (Natar Ungalaaq), who loves Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu). Atuat is betrothed to the to Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), the son of Sauri (Eugene Ipkarnak), the head of the community. In the film's most brutal scene, Oki and Atanarjuat engage in a pummeling competition (it's not exactly a fistfight) for Atuat's hand.

Atanarjuat wins, but while Oki is angered, years later, he allows his sister Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk) to be Atanarjuat's second bride, indicating that he respects Atanarjuat. But Atuat can't bear to be thrown over for Puja, especially when Puja refuses to work and to help Atuat raise Atanarjuat's son. Atanarjuat, for his part, is indifferent until Oki murders Atanarjuat's brother (Pakkak Innukshuk) in revenge for what he understands to be Atanarjuat's vicious treatment of Puja.

In the film's central sequence, Oki and his entourage chase the naked Atanarjuat across miles of frozen lakes until the latter's feet are bloody. That this scene could even be filmed is extraordinary; the outtakes show us Ungalaaq taking a break from filming the sequence, wrapped in several blankets.

Norman Cohn's digital-video cinematography sets a new high standard for cinema's newest medium. Not even the high-budget

Attack of the Clones

had such a pristine image. But at the same time, Cohn's often-handheld camera is highly mobile. In true indie-film fashion, he's able to shoot the punching contest at close range.

As hackneyed as it sounds, the performances are so realistic that you forget you're watching actors, non-professional or otherwise. This is a major accomplishment, considering that the cast of The Fast Runner includes a full-time hunter, a seamstress, and a student in a management-training program.

The Fast Runner

is an almost purifying film experience. Time seems to stand still while you watch it, and the final scenes take on the gravity of life itself. You may leave the theater feeling cold, but not because of the air conditioning.