“Atanarjuat the Fast Runner” is the first-ever screenplay written in the Inuit language, Inuktitut — and the first time’s a charm. Shot on DV — and looking terrific due to the exceptional light so near the North Pole — pic captures an epic story rife with rivalries, evil spirits, sex, violence, native ingenuity, harsh elements and humor, that clocks in at an epic length. But any viewer who’s grabbed by the first reel is more than likely to be captivated by the full enterprise. Made by a 90% Inuit crew, thousand-year-old tale of festering evil on the frozen tundra should find a warm welcome worldwide, particularly on the fest circuit.
Inuit storytelling — an oral tradition active for four millennia — is one of the world’s oldest living art forms, with a method of written transcription introduced only in the last few decades. This saga of two brothers whose lives are deeply disrupted by evil in the form of an unknown shaman, circa 1000 A.D., has been handed down across generations to illustrate the dangers in a harsh landscape of putting personal desire ahead of the communal good.
Authentic from the crunch of snow underfoot to the amazingly gorgeous light on the small island in the north Baffin region of the Canadian Arctic where pic was lensed to the sleds built out of caribou antlers and sinew to ingenious native garments fashioned from animal pelts, pic positively drips with an ineffable aura of genuineness. Docu-style evidence of how the nomadic Inuit built igloos, kept water liquid in freezing temperatures, prepared and consumed food, and fashioned sunglasses that look ready for space travel, is neatly incorporated but venture is above all a strong fictional narrative full of universal archetypes honed through the ages.
Brothers Amaqjuaq the Strong One (Pakkak Innushuk) and Atanarjuat the Fast Runner (experienced Inuit actor Natar Ungalaaq) are devoted to each other. Oki (Peter Henry Arnatsiaq), the bullying self-important son of the camp leader, has been betrothed since childhood to Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu). When Atuat and Atanarjuat grow sweet on each other, Oki challenges Atanarjuat to a fight, with the winner getting the girl. Fight sequence is rivetingly bizarre — the combatants take strict turns landing one fist on their opponent’s temple as one would pound a nail — and Atanarjuat wins. Suffice it to say, Oki is a lousy loser.
Seasons later, when Atanarjuat and Atuat have a child and Atanarjuat has taken a cute but possibly untrustworthy second wife, Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk), Oki ambushes Atanarjuat and his brother as they sleep in a tent. The brother is speared to death but, true to his name, Atanarjuat manages to run off across the thawing ice, completely naked and barefoot, with fur clad Oki and his two henchman in angry pursuit. Thrilling sequence, in which Atanarjuat stumbles through pools of icy water and leaps across a deadly crevasse, arrives at the 90-minute mark and pic gathers fresh momentum as the frozen and bleeding Atanarjuat is rescued and nursed back to health by an elderly couple. Assumed dead by his enemies and loved ones, he plots a dramatic return.
New York-raised d.p., Norman Cohn, who has lived in the Inuit community of Igloolik (population: 1,200) since 1985, positions the camera down at dog and sled-runner level or arranges for it to glide across the snow during the extended escape-and-chase sequence to excellent you-are-there effect. Depending on the season (shoot spanned six months), lensing makes the most of the icy blue or glowing golden light.
Thesps, many of them acting for the first time and clearly dedicated to the idea of capturing their own history on film, inhabit their roles with oomph.
Score features pleasing choral compositions as well as syncopated drum and flute interludes full of noble and hypnotic tonalities.