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Baby, It's Cold Outside: Natar Ungalaaq puts urban joggers to shame when he races across the ice in 'The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat).'

Snow Dogs

Three hours on the ice in the critically acclaimed 'Atanarjuat'

By Richard von Busack

SOME HAVE SAID of the three-hour Canadian import The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) that it introduces the audience to a new world. That it does. After three hours on the ice in the area of Igloolik, near Baffin Bay, I can't convey the rapture of seeing a world that has color and warmth and spices, cars and buildings and trees, beautiful trees--getting out of this movie was a highlight of my cinema year.

The Camera d'Or winner at Cannes, The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) is perfect for people who haven't liked anything since Himalaya. Zacharias Kunuk's film, which features a cast of nonprofessional actors, is based on an eons-old legend of a pair of brothers--Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq), the fast one, and Amaqjuag (Pakkak Innukshuk), the strong one, who unite against the pressure of a gang of homicidal bullies: Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), son of the village's headman, and his two companions.

That's a simple setup, and the subtitling is colloquial enough; the dialogue includes the Inuit expressions for "I'm sick of leftovers," "jerk" and "asshole." A few too-brief scenes of igloo-building raise the film's pulse--so does the unsentimental handling of the pack huskies--snappish beasts who get a kick in the ribs for their bad tempers. The action high point is a murder, which the naked Atanarjuat survives by outrunning Oki and his fellow thugs on foot.

Yet the film is fundamentally bewildering. Narration is generally a sign of some kind of failure, but it would have been a blessing in this case. We're dropped in the midst of the clan, and the members are harder to sort out than the guests and servants in Gosford Park. Oki is easy to pick out; he wears a distinctive neckpiece that looks like the pelt of a fur-bearing octopus. In the second hour, the characters differentiate further. The bad girl, Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk), whom I was rooting for, descends into a sluttiness that helps drive a deeper wedge into the troubled clan.

As for the visual qualities, about two hours in, Kunuk uses a zoom shot, and you're jolted, thinking, My word, what a radical gesture from him! Most of the film takes place outdoors on the wilderness ice, with an interlude at a fishing camp by the side of the sea. Photographer Norman Cohn shot the film in wide-screen Beta. That's probably the only way a film in this far, far location could have been made. However, that also means three hours with the limited color palette of the Betacam: grubby oranges and nicotine yellows.

The film was made under extreme conditions, by a group of people who live very differently from the way that the present-day Inuit exist. For that alone, The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) does deserve the "certain regard" that it got at Cannes. All the components of a compelling movie are here, and organizing them for brevity and clarity wouldn't be a sop to Westernization. For some, movies about folk who don't watch movies are the highest and the purest. These filmgoers will adore it. I found The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) to be as relentless as the landscape it records.


The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) (Unrated; 172 min.), directed by Zacharias Kunuk, written by Paul Apak Angilirq, photographed by Norman Cohn and starring Natar Ungalaaq and Pakkak Innukshuk, opens July 3 at Camera 3 in San Jose.


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From the June 27-July 3, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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