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The Fast Runner Atanarjuat

FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW; A Far-Off Inuit World, in a Dozen Shades of White


In standard histories of world cinema, the Inuit people of northern Canada figure mostly in connection with Robert J. Flaherty's ''Nanook of the North,'' an epochal silent documentary made in 1922. Eighty years later, the voices of the Inuit can at last be heard on screen. ''The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat)'' directed by Zacharias Kunuk and based on an ancient folk epic, is the first feature film made in the Inuktitut language by an almost entirely Inuit cast and crew. It was made, with financial assistance from the National Film Board of Canada, by Igloolik Isuma Productions. Mr. Kunuk founded this company in 1990 with Norman Cohn, the film's director of photography; Paul Apak Angilirq, who wrote the screenplay; and Pauloosie Qulitalik, a cast member, with the intention of expanding film and video productions in the aboriginal areas that now form the Canadian province of Nunavut.

All of this would be enough to make ''The Fast Runner,'' which will be shown tonight and tomorrow in the New Directors/New Films series at the Museum of Modern Art, a noteworthy film. It's always interesting when a hitherto unrepresented corner of the world shows up on the screen. Part of the wonder of the movies, even at this late date in their history, lies in their ability to acquaint us with cultures and places far removed from what we already know. The arrival of a movie that expands the scope of our experience, that immerses us in a radically different point of view, is always a welcome event, and such a movie does not necessarily have to be great to be interesting.

''The Fast Runner,'' however, is not merely an interesting document from a far-off place; it is a masterpiece. Mr. Kunuk's film, which won the Cam´ra d'Or for best first feature at last year's Cannes International Film Festival, is much more than an ethnographic curiosity. It is, by any standard, an extraordinary film, a work of narrative sweep and visual beauty that honors the history of the art form even as it extends its perspective.

The myth that Eskimos have dozens of words for snow may have been discredited by linguists, but Mr. Cohn, using a widescreen digital video camera, has discovered at least a dozen distinct shades of white, from the bluish glow of the winter ice to the warm creaminess of coats made of polar bear fur. Shot over six months and taking place across a span of many years, ''The Fast Runner'' captures the movement of the seasons above the Arctic Circle and the ways climate and the migratory patterns of animals influenced the traditional Inuit way of life. Although it has the close, intimate feel of the present tense -- an effect partly of the hand-held video camera and the unaffected emotions of the actors -- the film reconstructs those traditions rather than documenting them. You are so completely caught up in the codes and rituals of a nomadic, tribal society governed by complex ideas of honor and loyalty that it is easy to overlook the artistry that has put them before you. During the end credits, as if to remind the audience that this is not a documentary, the cast and crew are glimpsed in leather jackets and sunglasses, pushing sled-mounted cameras across the snow.

Though the story takes a while to establish itself, it has the clarity and power common to epics from the sagas of ancient Scandinavia to the westerns of the old Hollywood. The first half-hour, which turns out to be a prologue to the main narrative, is a little confusing, in part because it immediately plunges into arcane Inuit lore. ''I can only say this story to someone who understands it,'' a voiceover says at the beginning, and what follows slowly creates the conditions for that understanding.

The people of Igloolik suffer under a shamanic curse that causes bad luck and dissension in their midst. Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq), a child at the start of the movie, comes into a legacy of ill will when he falls in love with Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu), who has been promised to the chief's son, an arrogant hothead named Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq). The rivalry between them is as violent and stirring as anything in Victor Hugo, and it fills the screen with a kind of outsize life-or-death passion that is all too rare in movies these days.

Because different camps and clans in the tribe depend on one another for survival, Atanarjuat and Oki are continually butting heads -- or, as in a ritual contest to decide who will marry Atuat, punching each other in the head. The tragic cycle of vengeance and cruelty consumes them for years, but ''The Fast Runner'' also abounds with humor and sensuality. Mr. Kunuk has accomplished the remarkable feat of endowing characters from an old folk tale with complicated psychological motives and responses. The combination of dramatic realism and archaic grandeur is irresistibly powerful.

So is Mr. Zunuk's visual command. ''The Fast Runner'' includes some unforgettable sequences, shot in the smoky interiors of igloos, out on the ice and in fields of yellow grass and purple clover during the brief spring thaw. The most astonishing scene -- during which Oki and his minions, after a brutal assault on their enemy's tent, pursue the naked, barefoot Atanarjuat across a vast expanse of ice -- has already become something of a classic, a word that will quickly be bestowed on the film as a whole.


Directed by Zacharias Kunuk; written (in Inuktitut, with English subtitles) by Paul Apak Angilirq; director of photography, Norman Cohn; edited by Mr. Kunuk, Mr. Cohn and Marie-Christine Sarda; music by Chris Crilly; art director, James Ungalaaq; produced by Mr. Angilirq, Mr. Cohn and Mr. Kunuk; released by Lot 47 Films. Running time: 172 minutes. This film is not rated. Being shown tonight at 8 p.m. and tomorrow at 11:30 a.m. at the Roy and Niuta Titus Theater, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan, as part of the 31st New Directors/New Films series of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the department of film and media of the Museum of Modern Art.

WITH: Natar Ungalaaq (Atanarjuat), Sylvia Ivalu (Atuat), Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq (Oki) Lucy Tulugarjuk (Puja), Madeline Ivalu (Panikpak), Pauloosie Qulitalik (Qulitalik), Eugene Ipkarnak (Sauri) and Pakkak Innukshuk (Amaqjuaq).

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