A man races naked and barefoot over a vast field of blue and white glacial ice, his hobbled stride carrying him step by bloody step away from blinding fear and toward the infinite nothing of the horizon. Watching him onscreen as he desperately propels himself across the frozen expanse to the sound of a throat singer’s reedy cry, you can feel the cold in your bones.
This, perhaps the most indelible scene from director Zacharias Kunuk‘s The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) — a film shot in the far reaches of the Canadian Arctic — seems destined to take its place among the cinema’s great uncanny moments. Like the eye surgically sliced in Buñuel‘s Un Chien Andalou or the severed ear in the green grass of Lynch’s Blue Velvet, this arresting, mysterious and utterly compelling vision of man and landscape stirs countless primal anxieties. Occurring near the center of this remarkable first feature by an indigenous Canadian filmmaker, it is a potent image to conjure with, and Kunuk‘s ancestors have been doing just that, for centuries.
Kunuk and screenwriter Paul Apak Angilirq adapted The Fast Runner from an old Inuit story about two nomadic families haunted by ghosts and locked in a vicious cycle of love, jealousy, murder and revenge. The director has fixed this Arctic potboiler, passed down through the ages as part of a rich oral tradition, onto digital video with such breathtaking punch and such a sweeping sense of immediacy, pop-culture critics with a thing for Joseph Campbell’s mythomania may want to stop picking over Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones and Spider-Man: The first really great mythic film of the summer has arrived.
Steeped in ancient tradition, The Fast Runner begins just as everything starts to fall apart. At the dawn of the first millennium, a mysterious shaman comes among the members of a small Inuit community and, in the flickering glow of the seal-oil lamps that illuminate their igloos, sows the seeds of ambition and deceit. In voice-over a woman announces, ”Evil came to us like death,“ and Kunuk‘s elliptical evocation of this ritual world a underscores the presence of a malevolent spirit even as it masks the exact nature of its schemes. Enigmatic whispers, wary glances and the passing of totemic symbols — a rabbit’s foot, a walrus-tusk necklace — are initially all that we are given to help us deduce the relationships between characters and their place in the social order. (When a man, bound hand and foot, suddenly slumps over dead on the floor of an igloo while the gathered clan looks passively on, all we can do is gape, dumbfounded.) Far from alienating us from these people, however, Kunuk‘s strategy pulls us deep into their dread and confusion as their traditional laws and values begin to corrode from within. Then — when the grinning shaman places the necklace over the head of a doltish young man and another rises in the hellish orange light of the igloo and cries, ”You helped him kill his own father!“ — the enormity of the corruption suddenly becomes clear.
All this, though a sizable fraction of the film’s nearly three-hour running time, is prologue. The evil planted in the film‘s opening scenes doesn’t bear its most poisonous fruit until 20 years later, when Kunuk takes up the story of the young hero Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq). In the intervening decades, the clan, under the leadership of the usurping Sauri (Eugene Ipkarnak), has been infected by a cruelty and selfishness most obviously embodied in his own children, Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), an arrogant coward prone to picking fights and kicking sled dogs, and Oki‘s sister Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk), the local temptress whose gift for deception is without precedent among the Inuit. (Indeed, among the beautiful, unadorned performances of The Fast Runner’s mostly nonprofessional cast, Tulugarjuk‘s beguiling turn suggests the roots of performance itself.) Atanarjuat, along with his older brother Amaqjuaq (Pakkak Innukshuk), skilled hunters who emerge as the champions of older, more communal values, are natural rivals to Oki’s authority. It isn‘t, however, until Atanarjuat marries the Inuit community’s most eligible bachelorette, Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu), that he earns Oki‘s permanent enmity and a chain of events is set in motion that brings the entire clan to the brink of destruction.
Kunuk’s impressionistic strokes at the beginning of the film force us to meet his characters on their own cultural terms. Through the lens of cinematographer Norman Cohn, a New Yorker who has lived and worked in the Inuit community of Igloolik for the past 17 years, the pale light of the Arctic‘s perennial winter sun conspires, for much of The Fast Runner, with the snow-covered tundra to form an imposing wall of white in the background, the visual counterpart to the veil of cultural unknowing that we must somehow penetrate. Atanarjuat, on the other hand, is frequently seen moving through epic, wide-open spaces. In one of the film’s most iconic, romantically charged sequences, Atanarjuat paddles his kayak over a sea set ablaze by the setting sun as Atuat watches his return from the shore beneath a crystal-blue sky. Through Atanarjuat, the filmmakers begin to fill the frozen landscape with the warmth and expressiveness of Inuit culture, whether it‘s the flirtatious game of tag that Atanarjuat and Atuat play in the powdery snow or the ribald songs that Atanarjuat and Oki sing to each other by way of ritual taunts. At the same time, Kunuk drives the story through its expansive setting by emphasizing the bold, clean lines of conflict between the rivals. When Puja enacts her own seductive brand of revenge against Atanarjuat, what began as an epic poem slides imperceptibly into the broader pleasures of soap opera — until, that is, Atanarjuat finds himself running naked for his life.
Since The Fast Runner won the Camera d’Or at Cannes last year and six Canadian Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, the film has been hailed by critics as everything from a folkways masterpiece to the rebirth of the cinema. At the very least, it‘s a wake-up call. Ever since Star Wars, the work of academics like Campbell has been co-opted by screenwriters looking for an easy blueprint for a blockbuster while the studios’ marketing arms have used it to get bloated popcorn fare onto the covers of Time and Newsweek. Somewhere along the line, myth was rewritten as formula. The Fast Runner presents us with the real thing. And indeed, as the first film to be made in the Inuktitut language with an all-Inuit cast, this largely indigenous production pushes us, ready or not, into a truly global era of cinema.