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Atanarjuat: the fast runner

(2002) *** 1/2 Unrated
172 min. Lot 47. Director: Zacharias Kunuk. Cast: Natar Ungalaaq, Sylvia Ivalu, Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq, Lucy Tulugarjuk, Madeline Ivalu.

Zacharias Kunuk's Atanarjuat: the fast runner works on several levels. It's lyrical mythology, domestic drama, travelogue, and museum piece. In adapting a story from oral tradition dating back a few millenium, Kunuk and a predominantly Inuit cast and crew achieve both filmic and anthropological excellence.

The titular Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq) becomes the reluctant hero of his nomadic tribal community after the pervasive influence of an evil shaman creates trouble for his family, including his hard-won and beloved bride Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu). Atanarjuat's brother is Qulitalik (Paul Qulitalik), the Strong One, but it is the Fast Runner's skill and heart which promise salvation for the people of the Arctic expanse.

Kunuk's film is a remarkable homegrown effort. Screenwriter Paul Apak Angilirq (who died in 1998, before he could see the completed film) worked with tribal elders to compile a definitive version of the legend--and the first-ever screenplay written in Inuktitut-- while also ensuring the story would speak to modern audiences. Shot entirely on the most difficult of locations, the film features authentic reproductions of ancient clothes, tools, and dwellings. As such, Atanarjuat attains a sort of magic neo-realism, putting a cast of mostly first-time actors (and a neophyte film crew) to the task of this elementally powerful folk tale.

If Atanarjuat is a kind of Inuit Odyssey, it's sung not in a declamatory style, but in a minor key. Delicately blending the mundane and the mysterious, Kunuk observes the rituals of meat and skin and snow and ice. Most will remember the centerpiece scene of Atanarjuat running naked across the tundra, but Kunuk also creates many lyrical tableaus that stick in the mind; one, for example, depicts the young Qulitalik hand-feeding the infant Atanarjuat—who's lolling on their mother's back in their fire-lit hovel. The pace is lesiurely (the film clocks in at nearly three hours), but instead of growing wearing over time, the film becomes more engrossing, a good sign that the story touches a deep chord. The landscape (shot on digital video and transferred to film) is mesmerizing, and the characters throb with passions that frame showdowns between lust and loyalty, selfishness and magnanimity.

Atanarjuat: the fast runner illuminates a lifestyle that will be alien to a vast majority of viewers and serves as a reminder that sure-handed storytelling can bring us closer to one another. With plenty of blockbuster movies waiting around to cleanse the palate, why not dine first on this exotic and rare entrée?

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