Inuit film captures spirit of tribal culture in Arctic

July 26, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The Fast Runner has received tons of advance publicity for being a genuine Inuit production: director Zacharias Kunuk and his late screenwriter, Paul Apak Angilirq, and the cast and almost all the crew are Inuit. They made this tale of inner-tribal conflict and survival, set in the Arctic of a thousand years ago, more or less communally, in keeping with Inuit culture.

But I think the biggest contributor to the film's slow-accreting power is the New York-bred cinematographer, Norman Cohn. He has the great photographer's gift of capturing the details viewers need to understand a piece of action from the marrow to the flesh and bones. My favorite shots are of sled dogs pulling their loads and of humans trotting beside them and cracking whips -- you can tell well before a dog is kicked that his master is savage.

By all means, buy a ticket to The Fast Runner, but don't go expecting a masterpiece; actually, in its first hour, the dramaturgy and staging of scenes set in igloos are cramped and amateurish.

To Inuit audiences, the 11th-century story of a shaman infecting a tribe with an evil spirit may be as well known as the Oresteia story was to the Greeks, who didn't need Aeschylus or Euripides to instruct them on how Orestes killed his mother Clytemnestra after she and her lover killed his father, Agamemnon.

To non-Inuit audiences, the tangle of parricide, regicide and wife-theft in this movie verges on the incomprehensible.

But it all gets sorted out in the end. And about an hour in, the central plot of two brothers, Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner (Natar Ungalaaq), and the strong, stalwart Amaqjuaq (Pakkak Innukshuk), begins to exert the requisite primordial pull.

The siblings antagonize the loathsome Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq) when Atanarjuat marries Oki's betrothed, Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu). Oki and his clan are like the degenerates in a Peckinpah film -- I mean that as the highest compliment to the performers and to director Kunuk. When Oki and two other scruffy oafs hunt Atanarjuat as he races naked and alone across hundreds of acres of ice, the movie makes you feel thrillingly present at the birth of a myth.

Cohn shot the film in wide-screen digital Betacam. His imagery is magical both in its sweep and its intimate detail: He gets almost as much out of women tending seal-oil lamps as he does out of the men dragging seal and caribou meat out of the wild.

This movie's power is cumulative; if you stick with it, you do get attuned to its stark contours and jagged rhythms. And it's blessedly unsentimental about tribal culture. The Fast Runner is worth seeing just for the way the tribal elders dispense justice, battling shamanism with shamanism and then meting out final punishments like Shakespearean princes.

Fast Runner

Starring Natar Ungalaaq and Pakkak Innukshuk

Directed by Zacharias Kunuk


Released by Lot 47

Time 172 minutes (in Inuktitut with English subtitles)

Sun Score ***

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