Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (April 10/02)
Though it's received oodles of accolades and reams of glowing reviews, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner plays more like an unfinished documentary than a feature-length film (though, in all fairness, it's entirely possible that's exactly the sort of vibe the filmmakers were going for).
With a cast comprised of both actors and locals, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner is based on an ancient legend that's been circulating among the Inuit culture for thousands of years. As the movie opens, we are immediately plunged into the dark and depressing Inuit world. Not surprisingly, life under such harsh environmental conditions is arduous and challenging. It certainly doesn't help that the camp's leader has been engaged in a lifelong rivalry with Tulimaq, a fight that's been passed onto a new generation. Tulimaq's two sons become the camp's two best hunters, a source of great jealousy for Oki (the leader's son). And if that wasn't enough to enrage Oki, one of Tulimaq's sons has won the affection of Oki's bride-to-be - which sets in motion a series of fights and arguments, culminating with Oki's plan to murder the two brothers.
Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner barely has enough material to fill a 52-minute CBC special, let alone a three-hour cinematic "event." Once the characters have been introduced and the rivalries have been established, the film doesn't really have anywhere to go. The director, Zacharias Kunuk, doesn't trouble himself with issues of pacing or character development; rather, he seems to be hoping that the vast, barren landscape should be breathtaking enough to satiate most viewers. And while that is true to a certain extent, a film cannot (and should not) subsist on images alone.
However, there's absolutely no denying that portions of this film are simply stunning. There's a sequence in which the title character is chased along a vast expanse of the landscape, completely and utterly naked. For a few brief moments, the film comes alive with a real sense of urgency and excitement - a feeling that dissipates as quickly as it appeared. Having said that, the logistics of making a film amongst such harsh conditions must have presented a real challenge, though (to the credit of the filmmakers) it never shows. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner comes off like a documentary rather than a film, consistently eschewing polished camerawork in favor of jittery, on-the-fly cinematography. And the acting, though amateurs have filled most of the roles, feels authentic. But all of that should be secondary to a compelling screenplay, which Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner is sorely lacking. On a sociological level, the movie might hold some interest. But for the average moviegoer, the film will likely hold little appeal.