Ice age

The tribe comes before the hero in Inuit legend.


directed by Zacharias Kunuk with Natar Ungalaaq and Sylvia Ivalu opens June 21 at Egyptian

IT'S AN EPIC, it's Homeric, it's Shakespearean—maybe you've already read and heard the raves from New York critics and enthralled SIFF- goers about The Fast Runner. In its mythic story, heroic Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq) battles Oki, the clan leader's evil son, for lovely Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu). Oki wants revenge and takes it. Will Atanarjuat retaliate? Reincarnation, shamans, and ghosts figure in the saga, which gains urgency and grandeur from the hostile, barren environment.

Runner's greatness lies as much in the immediate sensory details of that environment as in the grand classical themes of love, revenge, betrayal, dynastic succession, and curses to be exorcised. To view this nearly three-hour-long digital-video movie is to immerse oneself in the quotidian life of the ancient, uncolonized Arctic.

The snow crunches loudly underfoot. Live location sound recording means that each person's tread bears the weight of his or her character—whether playing with children, mushing the dogs, or racing barefoot and naked for one's life (in Runner's most indelible scene). Spindrift waves ripple over the pack ice, turning its hard surface into a watery mirage.

The sky is a vast canopy that rivals John Ford's Monument Valley or David Lean's desert, yet it's anything but bleak. Canadian Inuit director Zacharias Kunuk and his cinematographer, Norman Cohn, often frame their subjects when the sun is low and gloriously orange. Fugitives scan the horizon for their pursuers, since there's almost literally no place to hide. Even inside the igloos, you feel the overwhelming power of light (and darkness) outside.

The life depicted in Runner has a stark, beautiful simplicity and rhythm. Birds' eggs are picked and boiled; seals are skinned; seal oil fuels the lamps, and dried seaweed the fires; meat is eaten raw from the fresh carcass or kneaded into pink paste from frozen stores in winter. (Vegetarians and PETA members, steer clear of this picture!) Over the course of several years depicted in the film, seasons change and life cycles turn over as the nomads shift from winter seal hunting on ice to the summertime pursuit of caribou on land.

Surrounded by unforgiving snow and ice, each life is precious in such a tiny population. The opposing camps can't afford a blood feud, since killing one person threatens the entire tribe. Disputes are resolved before the assembled village, as when two men unflinchingly prepare to accept a fist to the head until one falls unconscious to the igloo floor (try that, Mike Tyson!). Peeing on the same rock signals reconciliation. Belching inspires laughter. Families sleep communally, allowing one cunning seductress to entice her husband's brother even when surrounded by sleeping kin. And yes, I am charmed to report, the Eskimos even rub noses (in addition to kissing).

Although shot in frozen climes, The Fast Runner is one of the warmest movies you're ever likely to see.

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