"A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away" would not seem out of place at the beginning of The Fast Runner. Zacharias Kunuk's remarkable Inuit epic takes place on Earth, but it has a setting that seems even more alien than Star Wars.
An adaptation of an ancient Inuit legend, The Fast Runner takes place a thousand years ago inside the Arctic Circle, in a community built around igloos, dog sleds and seal oil. With its beautifully stark setting and precise depiction of ancient customs, the film suggests a documentary made thanks to a time machine. But The Fast Runner also tells a twisty revenge story as archetypal as any tale from the Old Testament.
The film sets out on unsteady footing. A 10-minute prologue introduces the isolated village of Igloolik, a tiny community of only a few families that has been beset by an evil spirit. As we try to distinguish the characters, we get vague intimations of a murder and try to sort out scenes that may be flashbacks or mystic visions.
Kunuk never handles the supernatural elements with grace, but fortunately they come up infrequently. From the beginning, The Fast Runner focuses on universal details that anyone can identify with, no matter how extreme the setting. An unlucky huntsman must beg for the uneaten cast-offs of his belching betters, and his wife complains, "I'm sick of eating leftovers -- especially the rear end!"
But the poor hunter's two sons grow up to be experts at bringing home the caribou, and The Fast Runner finally "begins" with the introduction of the adult brothers: strong Amaqjuag (Pakkak Innukshuk) and swift Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq), the "fast runner" of the title. Atanarjuat romances the comely Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu), playing a game of tag in which the winner endearingly says, "I 'wolf' you" on catching the other.
But Atuat has been promised to the bullying Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), whose family is "cursed" by the spirit to commit cruel deeds. Eventually Atanarjuat and Oki settle their rivalry the old-fashioned way, taking turns knocking each other upside the head in a kind of tough-man contest, and Atanarjuat prevails.
A few years later find Atanarjuat and Atuat as a happy couple, until Atanarjuat sets off on an extended hunt. He's joined by Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk), Oki's spirited but crafty sister, who claims she only wants to help him. On a lake at dusk, they sing songs, touch each other under their furs and eventually share a tent in a sex scene of unexpected eroticism. Most of the film is cast with non-professional actors, and Tulugarjuk is especially expressive. When she's upset, she keens like an infant.
Ataranjuat takes Puja as a second wife, which we gather is not uncommon, but Puja's presence in the family makes bad blood worse. Oki and his two sidekicks eventually ambush the two brave brothers, and in the film's most celebrated sequence, a stark-naked Atanarjuat is pursued across a field of ice by three enemies wielding spears. Having the unnerving clarity of a vivid nightmare, the chase scene is also the most memorable example of The Fast Runner's nature photography: At times the characters are dwarfed by the blankness that surrounds them, with only the horizon line separating the whiteness of snow from the whiteness of the sky.
The Fast Runner's last hour has an arc comparable to numerous Westerns and action films, as the fugitive Atanarjuat must face his enemies to find justice. But the script by the late Paul Apak Angilirq frequently avoids the conventions of Western drama. The narrative advances at a careful pace, much in the way the characters themselves move slowly, swaddled in thick parkas and traveling across slippery ice.
At nearly three hours, The Fast Runner keeps going for too long, but Kunuk's detail-oriented approach to the exotic setting and powerful story keeps it from becoming tedious. As a chronicle of an extinct way of life, the film suggests a brushed-up version of the classic documentary Nanook of the North. But The Fast Runner's inclusion of sexual attraction, violent rivalries and earthy humor make it feel timeless, and as pertinent in a movie theater as it would be in an ice hut.