Something should be said for any film that involves a naked man running away from his pursuers for nearly 20 minutes in the Arctic Circle, a chase sequence that’s more thrilling than any blockbuster that includes one. “Atanarjuat:The Fast Runner” goes where “Minority Repor”t and “XXX” don’t – into what pain lurks when a nude man lands front first into the barren ice. But as trivial a moment as the scene is to the impressive whole of “The Fast Runner,” the pursuit is indicative of a movie that is both incredibly long and incredibly entertaining.
As the very first film of record to be filmed with the Inuit language, “The Fast Runner” is as much a foreign film in language as it is in sensibility. Shot on digital video by Zacharias Kunuk, a Canadian who is making his feature debut here, but has been stationed in Igloolik (where the film takes place) for nearly 12 years, the film is literally a cultural revelation. With no recognizable faces and exquisite attention to detail, the production, not unlike the original Blair Witch Project, feels engrossingly real and spends almost its entire first hour establishing every facet of the Inuit culture.
But anthropology professors reading this shouldn’t rejoice at this point in the review and plan to show the film to their class just yet, because what follows is a storyline pulled right out of an episode of Melrose Place, or considering the supernatural, a really good story arc for Passions.
Atanarjuat, the film’s title character, lives within a tribe that has been cursed for no apparent reason, but is born into a rivalry with Oki, the son of the tribe’s chief. Their rivalry begins when Atanarjuat falls in love with Atuat, who is promised to be married to Oki, and Atanarjuat challenges Oki to a fight, which is one that essentially continues for the length of the film, though there is an immediate winner. While their troubled relationship serves as the foundation for the film, members of the small tribe are in and out of each other’s igloos and furs, at each other’s throats and passionationately vengeful. “The Fast Runner” is one fun time at the movies.
However, before the film gets to the point of being entertaining, it is extremely difficult to watch in its first hour, in which characters seem interchangeable and doesn’t make much sense other than as a study of the Inuit culture. Soon after, the mood changes, though the intimate documentary feel of the film doesn’t waver from its original style.
Brilliantly photographed by Norman Cohn on his first time out, the cinematography captures the vastness of the land and the culture, in spite of a narrow lens. The digital video used for “The Fast Runner” has been transferred to film and still manages to give off an almost poetic, if grainy, sense of time and place. With musical accompaniment by Chris Crilly that is often fractured, the film truly envelopes the audience within a world that is separate from the one we inhabit.
On one hand, such separation might serve as reason enough to stay away from this three-hour epic of relatively low proportions, yet it results in a film that is relentless once it gets going and only continues to build suspense and curiosity about the lives of Atanarjuat and his people as the film wears on. The Fast Runner may not have the most thrilling pace of any film this summer, but it’s definitely one of the coolest.