Atanarjuat / The Fast Runner

(Zacharias Kunuk, 2000) Kunuk has achieved the impossible: he’s woven an epic out of a handful of characters and a single landscape. Those characters are Inuit hunters, rivals and lovers, and that landscape is the Arctic. In retelling a legend about an impossibly fast runner named Atanarjuat (the film’s international title), Kunuk has made his culture tactile to those of us who live beyond it. Two men — virtuous Atanarjuat and scheming Oki — and two women — virtuous Atuat and scheming Puja — are four points in a love pentagon vexed by jealousies of all kinds (which may have been stoked by an evil spirit). Kunuk delivers the fundamentals about the human condition, telegraphing appetite through gesture and behavior, relying on the semiotics of body language and environment and even lighting. As epic as the narrative feels, it’s the film’s ice vistas and soundtrack that make Atanarjuat so hypnotic. The cast of non-professional actors are deft in their roles and mesmerizing onscreen — they linger in memory, as does the movie’s centerpiece of naked Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq) fleeing assassins over ice-floes. The terrain, the score, the peculiar Arctic light and the cinematography are as indelible as the characters. This is arguably the best film ever produced in Canada. –Ranylt Richildis

(Originally published as part of In Review Online’s The 100 Best Films of the Decade feature, in February 2010.)


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