I can’t say the three hours fly by; neither are they supposed to. The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat), a stunning, fully formed masterpiece of a first feature by Zacharias Kunuk (and the first feature ever in the Inuktitut language) retells a thousand-year-old Inuit legend about a blood feud between families unleashed by shamanistic forces but resolved by men. The good, fleet hero of the title (Natar Ungalaaq) enrages Oki (Peter Henry Arnatsiaq), a bad, brutish adversary, by winning the affection of Oki’s gentle intended bride, Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu), and the friends of the latter pursue the former across endless landscapes of desolate Arctic beauty.
The northern Canadian vistas of ice, light, and vivid nothingness (shot by New York-born, Canada-based Norman Cohn on digital video and intensified by transference to 35mm film) are dazzling in their real vastness (the utter opposite of computer-generated backdrops), and an extended scene in which Atanarjuat runs and runs and runs from his pursuers, naked, across miles of ice is destined, I think, to become one of the great cinematic sequences of modern times. (The film won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes in 2001.)
But ”The Fast Runner” is equally notable for the authoritative pace, so confident in its own Inuit-ness (and therefore so exotic to outsider audiences), with which the story is told and for the grace and ardor of the cast, most of them untrained. Demonstrations of rage, grief, fear, sexual desire, and an extraordinary honor ritual of head-banging flow so easily in and out of unforced vignettes of everyday domestic life – hunting, skinning, washing, child-rearing, just being – that there’s none of the field-trip fatigue that sometimes distances audiences from far-flung specimens of world cinema. By any measure, ”The Fast Runner” is a passionate, remarkable film, a big story told with a respect for its bigness by a filmmaker gifted at incorporating his culture’s mysteries into universally appealing art.