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Film review: Atanarjuat The Fast Runner

Published: Friday, Sept. 6 2002 7:41 a.m. MDT

Anytime a film features a nearly three-hour running time, as does "Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner)," that movie really can't and shouldn't be described as being fast. But in a rare instance of truth-in-advertising, this drama/revenge-thriller does feature a rather lengthy on-the-run-from-the-bad-guys sequence that is different from anything you've seen recently. And in this case, different definitely means good.

This Canadian feature is one of the first — if not the first — to feature solely Inuit characters (Inuits being the native fishermen and hunters who populate Canada's northern wilderness). As a result, the film offers fascinating glimpses into a society rarely seen in Western cinema. The scenery (nicely captured by cinematographer Norman Cohn) and the story itself aren't bad, either.

"Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner)" is based on an Inuit legend, albeit slightly contemporized. The title character is one of two brothers who believe their family has been cursed by an evil spirit. Though Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq) and his older brother Amaqjuaq (Pakkak Innushuk) are strong and swift, they've been overlooked as leaders of their tribe and have become objects of ridicule.

Meanwhile, it rankles would-be leader Oki (Paul Henry Arnatsiaq) that Atanarjuat has taken the tribe's most desirable female, Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu), as his bride. So when the opportunity arises, Oki and his two brothers make their move against Atanarjuat, and in the resulting chaos, they kill Amaqjuaq. Their real target escapes, but since Atanarjuat is sans clothing and without any weapons, they figure it's only a matter of time before he dies from exposure to the elements.

To say more would spoil some of the film's welcome surprises. And though some will probably have problems with the film's pacing — director Zacharias Kunuk never rushes things, and it could even be said that he dawdles in some sequences — the story holds your interest throughout.

Surprisingly, his mostly amateur cast impresses as well. Though Ungalaaq gives what is surely the movie's bravest performance, it's Arnatsiaq's villainous Oki who is possibly the most compelling.

"Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner)" is not rated but would probably receive an R for violence (beatings, stabbings and other brawling), full male and female nudity, scenes of simulated sex, a brief rape scene, scattered use of strong profanity (some sexually related), gore and vulgarity (belching and use of some vulgar slang). Running time: 168 minutes.


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