Based on an ancient legend, “Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner” is one of the gems of the Inuit storytelling tradition, a rich, colorful narrative used to entertain and instruct new generations. But “Atanarjuat” is no more a cautionary tale than, say, Macbeth, which it resembles, even if it was told around the igloo fires of Baffin Island nomads to demonstrate the woes of putting self above community. And as filmed by Canadian director Zacharias Kunuk, the story’s expansiveness, its range of emotions, and its themes of honor, vengeance, and absolution link it more closely to the eternal narratives of human passions than to the fustian folklore of what one might expect from—might as well say it up front—a three-hour Eskimo movie.
Like the great stories of Western literature, The Fast Runner transcends its period and milieu. There’s nothing “primitive” about the Inuit community depicted onscreen, despite the 1,000-years-ago setting and preponderance of details so much the stuff of Frozen North cliche that they’ve become virtually implausible. The rest is a revelation, one that could be taking place last month or 100 years from now, in the hollows of Appalachia or in sub-Saharan Africa, in Shakespeare or Faulkner or Disney or a Chinese fairy tale or the Bible.
The Fast Runner is a fable recounted as a documentary. Kunuk brings his camera in closely and hovers between characters with becalmed uncertainty until one of them has something to say, whereupon he swings around. The standard repertoire of reaction shots and seductive pans over the landscape is jettisoned in favor of a workmanlike intimacy—the camera is like another character, grunting along with the clan members as they work and catching crucial moments out of the corner of its eye. The setting—in and around Kunuk’s hometown of Igloolik in the Canadian Arctic—is breathtakingly beautiful, but only incidentally; after all, the characters have nothing to compare it with. The action pops out against the cosseting silence of the landscape: sounds of creaking leather, crunching snow, and yapping dogs in the winter, keening sea birds and plashing water in the spring. Against it all hums the strange, musical monotone of the Inuit language.
The film opens on an obscure curse placed on a small community by a visiting shaman, who grants leadership to Sauri (Eugene Ipkarnak), a man with three loutish sons, with the words, “Be careful what you wish for.” Sauri’s eldest, the odious Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), is promised the hand of the lovely Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu) but is challenged by Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq), a weaker man but a better one, whose love, needless to say, is returned by Atuat. As the young men jockey, only the sassy interference of Oki’s pert little sister Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk) keeps full-scale havoc from breaking out. Finally, Atanarjuat wins Atuat in a community-sanctioned fight, in which the men take turns setting up and delivering nasty cracks to the temple in an excruciatingly stylized ritual.
But the curse still haunts the clan, with particular focus on Atanarjuat and his strong elder brother Amaqjuaq (Pakkak Innukshuk). Sauri notes the teasing interplay between Atanarjuat and cute, mischievous Puja, so he encourages the young man to take a second wife. Alone on a foraging mission, Atanarjuat and Puja have an easy, joking way together, much unlike the elegant romanticism he shares with the exquisite Atuat, but Puja returns to the now-expanded clan (the other young men have married in the meantime) lazy, insolent, and full of malice. Ousted for seducing Amaqjuaq, who’s been saddled with one of two “ugly sisters” from a neighboring tribe, Puja runs to her family home with accusations against Atanarjuat that she knows will spell his doom. “I should have killed him when I was still thinking about it,” mutters Oki, conscripting his dim-witted brothers into taking up arms against his rival.
Atanarjuat escapes the attack and, in the film’s centerpiece sequence, runs naked across the ice for days on nearly skinless, bloodied feet. The chase is leisurely and mesmerizing, one pitifully pink figure leading the three well-bundled pursuers in an awkward dash over melting snow and hazardous water-filled pits. The world is nothing but horizon, directionless, a shimmering Rothko painting of white and blue. By the time Atanarjuat collapses at a most felicitous camp, hiding in a dried seaweed bed when Oki comes calling, he is at his lowest ebb. In using the very un-Inuit skill of fast running to save his own life, he has also denied his community the salvation it promised: The women are resigned to husbandless drudgery, the young men are enmeshed in a destructive cycle of vengeance, the families are at war.
Though its populace is small, the scope of The Fast Runner, like the Arctic landscape itself, is enormous. With only about 10 characters, every twist of a European court drama is played out, from regicide to exile to infidelity to negotiation between kingdoms. But Kunuk’s nerves-of-steel direction makes the narrative seem naturalistic, almost happenstance, as he focuses nonchalantly on everyday activities that are nevertheless loaded with portent—a very sexy scene, for instance, in which Atuat brings water for Atanarjuat while he helps a gang build an igloo, or an episode of masculine contention that shows Oki and his brothers casually stealing Atanarjuat and Amaqjuaq’s dog sled (“Assholes!” cries Amaqjuaq as they ride away).
Filmed entirely on location in the North Baffin region, The Fast Runner is very nearly absorbing enough to make you forget about its staggering logistics. Nonetheless, the closing credits provide some how’d-they-do-that? footage, showing Kunuk giving actors notes and his cinematographer, Norman Cohn, filming Ungalaaq’s naked dash from the precarious safety of a large sled. It’s a testament to Kunuk’s control—and to the power of a timeless epic—that a peek behind the scenes detracts not one whit from the hypnotic magic of this magnificent story. CP