WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
Overpraised by highfalutin critics mistaking something new for something brilliant, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner is not necessarily a terrible film, but it is most certainly an exercise in endurance, flimsy storytelling, poor acting, and awkward symbolism. Which is a shame, because sprinkled sporadically throughout this long film are moments of fascinating insight into a deeply foreign culture, as well as moments of awesome geographical beauty. As a rare look at the life and society of an ancient Inuit tribe, complete with petty squabbling and bruised egos, The Fast Runner is mostly intriguing in its you-are-there approach, offering extreme close-ups of faces weathered by thousands of years of history. But unfortunately, as a filmed story, The Fast Runner fails on most levels, even though it tries to hide behind its obscure language and its strange cultural rituals.
Directed by Zacharias Kunuk, an Inuit himself, The Fast Runner boasts an Inuit cast and a mostly Inuit crew. The film is set in the northernmost regions of Canada, where the indigenous people have lived for thousands of years. The landscape is a never-ending expanse of deep white, from ground to sky. Underground, small tribes wait out winter eating seal meat, singing ancient songs, ridiculing weaker tribe members, and engaging in the universal act of adultery. The claustrophobia of these cramped quarters is intensified by later scenes that take place outdoors, on the impossibly wide-open snow-blasted ice plateau, where the men, hunting for meat, appear as dark smudges against the sprawl of nature.
Like any society, the Inuit people have a certain set of superstitions, rituals, and social codes. There are wise men and stupid men, good people and immoral people. One of the joys of The Fast Runner is seeing how a small ancient tribe can prove to be a social microcosm of the challenges a much larger society faces. The elemental tale that this film tells might have been told by Shakespeare.
Two brothers, Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq) and Amaqjuaq (Pakkak Innukshuk)—one renowned for his speed and the other for his strength—are the target of the evil-minded Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), who may or may not be possessed by a malevolent spirit. Atanarjuat has the hots for a woman who already "belongs" to Oki. In one of the more powerful scenes in the film, the two men engage in a ritualistic fight, in which they take turns slamming each other in the head while the rest of the tribe watches and winces. The last man standing wins the girl. The story gets going when, lo and behold, Atanarjuat remains standing and takes Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu) as his wife. Things get complicated when Atanarjuat takes another wife, Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk)—Oki's sister—but she's a foul temptress who brings murder and betrayal upon the Inuits. In another of the film's stronger moments, Atanarjuat sprints naked across the fields of snow, through half-frozen pools, across jagged ice slivers, and you can feel the cold as surely as if you were in his place.
These are the makings of a potentially great film, especially given the society from which it springs. Most critics have probably reviewed the film's aims rather than its execution. And, indeed, The Fast Runner has its intentions in the right place. But sadly, this awkwardly structured movie is difficult to follow, and not even the character's obscure tongue can hide poor acting skills. Also, inadequately developed stabs at symbolism and mysticism only leave us confused, not because we can't understand the inner workings of the tribe's religious tenants, but simply because we're not given enough to work with. At nearly 3 hours long, The Fast Runner is too long, and perhaps a bit too taken with its subject and setting.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Columbia TriStar presents The Fast Runner in a very sharp anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.78:1 theatrical presentation. Shot on Digital Betacam video, the film has been transferred directly to disc from the original masters. The results are mostly stunning, particularly in outdoor close-ups. Detail is predictably fine, though exhibiting the typical hard edges of a video presentation. The image also shows a fair amount of grain. Shadow detail is wanting, primarily because of the frequent instances of severe backlighting. Colors are strong, despite the fact that the predominant color is white. Some bright scenes look washed out.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc includes a Dolby Digital 5.1 track in the original Inuktittut language, the first of its kind. Most of the audio activity is confined to the front, but the front soundstage is pleasingly wide, especially for the score. Dialogue is clean and accurate. Surround activity is limited to ambient sounds such as dogs barking, birds calling, and occasional music.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
Trailers for three other films, but not for this one.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
A lot of praise has been heaped on this mildly intriguing film. Personally, I would have been happier with a PBS special that jettisoned the weak stab at story and significance and just went for the pure documentary approach. The DVD offers excellent video and audio quality, but almost no supplements.