"Pathfinder," opening today at the Charles, is so simple and beguiling it seems to come from a pre-literate culture. It almost does.
It's the first, last and perhaps only Lapp movie ever made, Lappland being the upper crescent of frozen landscape that runs across the northern reaches of Norway, Sweden and Finland.
The story is a thousand years old, passed down through an oral tradition, until Nils Gaup decided to make a movie of it. Myth-pure, it's also myth-violent, being set in an iron-age culture where lives of animals and men, though sheathed in mysticism, are spent quickly and bloodily against the blinding snow.
The story begins when a teen boy (Mikkel Gaup) returns from hunting to discover that an invading squad of black-caped marauders called "The Tchude" have slain his parents and his sister; he watches as they feed the child's corpse into a hole in the ice.
Discovered, he's wounded; he escapes and takes refuge with a neighboring tribe. They refuse to fight and flee wretchedly in the snow. Finally, three of the hunters try to make a stand, and are slaughtered for their courage.
Gaup gets a great deal of energy out of his Tchude invaders; with glowering eyes and utter, mechanical indifference to human life, they remind one of Scar's tribe in John Ford's great "The Searchers," and also of the Teutonic Knights in Eisenstein's "Alexander Nevsky." Clomping dourly through the snow, they are a kind of Murder, Incorporated, of the northern latitudes.
The Tchude capture the boy and force him to take them toward the next village down the line, where, as Gaup reminds us over and over with a batch of unnecessary cross-cutting, innocent babes snuggle up in wolf skin blankets and a couple of snowbunnies frolic in the sauna. But the boy has a brave heart -- leading the enemy over a mountain ridge, he manages to concoct what might be called a punch and-Tchude show.
The movie is somewhat crudely made, but the frozen immensity of the great north is a convincingly daunting setting for an iron-age drama. The movie isn't slick or clever but at the most primitive level, it convinced.
Starring Mikkel Gaup and Inger Utsi.
Directed by Nils Gaup
LReleased by International Film Exchange, Ltd.