Centuries ago, in what would become the Canadian Arctic, Atuat is promised to the malevolent Oki, son of the leader of their tribe. But Atuat loves the good-natured Atanarjuat, who ultimately finds a way to marry her. Oki’s sister, Puja also fancies Atanarjuat, and when she causes strife between him and his brother Amaqjuaq, Oki seizes the opportunity to wreak a terrible revenge on Atanarjuat.
Apparently the first ever feature film to be made in the Inuktitut (Canadian Eskimo) language, this epic tale recounts the ancient Inuit legend of Atanarjuat.
Set some thousand years ago in the settlement of Igloolik near the Arctic Circle, “Atanarjuat” relates how shamanic forces spark deep divisions within a community of nomadic Inuit.
The sons of Tulimaq – Amaqjuaq the Strong One (Innushuk) and Atanarjuat the Fast Runner (Ungalaaq) – repeatedly clash with the loutish son of Sauri, Oki (Arnatsiaq). The latter is incensed by the fact that Atanarjuat has won the the heart of the beautiful Atuat (Ivalu), to whom he has been betrothed since childhood. Supported by his henchmen, Oki plans an ambush that will eliminate his rivals.
Robustly acted by its Inuit cast, “Atanarjuat – the Fast Runner” succeeds as a mythic drama of good versus evil, in which the desires of an individual have to take secondary importance to the harmony of the group.
Yet it’s also an impressively vivid and detailed depiction of a particular way of life: shelter is provided by carefully-constructed igloos, clothes are fashioned from animal skins, transport consists of husky-drawn sleds, whilst the staple food is walrus or seal meat.
And director Zacharias Kunuk also includes ritualistic events, such as a grieving ceremony and a bizarre head-thumping contest between two adversaries, which immerse us yet further into Inuit culture.
Cinematographer Norman Cohn shot this near three-hour odyssey on digital video before blowing it up to 35mm and, aided by the remarkable Arctic light, captures the forbidding expansiveness of the tundra landscapes, which dwarf the protagonists. There are some confusing time-shifts in the initial scenes, yet “Atanarjuat” soon settles into its own rhythm, whilst the chase sequence involving a naked Atanarjuat being pursued on foot across the ice floes is genuinely extraordinary.