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Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner (Zacharias Kunuk) 2002

      Apparently the first feature film in the Inuit language, Zacharias Kunukís debut feature Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner is certainly pretty. Filled with gorgeous and expansive snowy landscapes that are shot impeccably on digital video, the movie manages to make even the splotches of yellow snow look good. Even if the handheld camera work occasionally gets too hyperactive and the rampant lens flare sometimes annoys, thereís little denying the impressive cinematography on display here. As the involving Eskimo epic that it wants to be, however, it feels somewhat lacking. 

    Atanarjuat tries to achieve grand scope, initially presenting the protagonist as a child and following him through adulthood, but the simplicity of the plot conspires against those goals. The acting doesnít add any sort of emotional complexity here, and though the non-professional actors arenít exactly bad, they donít manage to fully convey the horrors of the patricide and tyranny that they have to contend with. As a result, the director tends to rely on a reaction shot of a crying child whenever he wants to move us. Kunuk comes off as a sentimentalist, scuttling his attempts to inflate his story into something bigger, leaving remains that feel as psychologically uncomplicated as the similarly themed The Lion King.

 

   Atanarjuatís running time approaches three hours long, making the title feel a bit oxymoronic, but I didnít much mind the filmís length. Since it finds a workable rhythm early on, thereís a more desperate need for editorializing than there is for editing. Though the movie is most successful when it acts as a documentary, showing us the rituals, songs, and lifestyle of the Eskimos it follows, itís tough to say exactly what weíre meant to feel at several moments throughout the film, because we donít quite understand the mores of the culture thatís portrayed. Itís often hard for those unacquainted with Inuit society to tell whose behavior is more out of line when conflict arises. When the title character flirts with the villainís betrothed wife, the villain decides to kill him for it. Itís anyoneís guess how justified any of this is, though, until the simplistic ending trots along, stultifying any impressions that any of the filmís morality fell into a gray area. The attempts to incorporate mysticism into the work are largely unsuccessful, at best, and a laughable distraction at worst. With a stronger plot or more emotional resonance, Atanarjuat might have been something special. As such, the film, despite its historical significance, is a failure.

 

* * 1/2 

4/01/02 

Jeremy Heilman