Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001)

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In the cold of an Inuit camp, a menacing shaman appears to place a curse on the community after the sudden death of the camp's leader.  Decades later, the evil of the curse manifests itself in a conflict between the petty Oki and charming Atanarjuat - the fast runner - who is forced to trek for miles alone fighting the curse.  Zacharias Kunuk directs Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, with the screenplay written by Paul Apak Angilirq, and stars Natar Ungalaaq and Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq.

Seven minutes in, and my body tingles with delight.  Drums on the soundtrack form a suggested rhythm.  When the cold familiar sound of compacted snow crunching against the footwear of an Inuit man steadies the beat, other instruments feel free to express their presence in the growing melody of work.  The camera glides from snow to face in an unbroken shot - the man toiling with the beat but cheerful - and when director Zacharias Kunuk cuts to the goofy tired wolf at the front of this labor I went from delight to bliss.

The sequence is short, maybe two minutes at most, but sets up a visual philosophy I rarely see on film.  Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (The Fast Runner moving forward) finds pleasure in the hard work of staying alive when so many other films mine our labor for despair or existential anguish.  A similar act of labor opens Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse, and the funereal dirge of the horse's trot in a harsh landscape feels light-years removed from the tough, if often wonderful, trek of The Fast Runner.  It fulfills a craving I didn't know I had for art that does not neglect the labor of living but also celebrates the miracle of existence.

The mystical elements of The Fast Runner are treated as fact, giving the world validity while their sparse presence keeps the action focused on physical reality.

The Fast Runner tells its story through generations of love and labor.  Years,  sometimes decades, pass between scenes yet I never felt lost.  Kunuk returns to the labor when it's time for the story to press on through the years and stops for the emotional beats that form the conflict at the center of The Fast Runner.  This helps make sense of the unsettling opening moments where the Inuit camp loses its leader and is visited by an ominous shaman who places a curse on them.  They're the other half of the storytelling vision of Kunuk - labor for texture and quietly teaching about the routines of the camp, and slowing down for the day-to-day conflicts and rituals which make up our existence.

That The Fast Runner hits this duality so effectively is something of a miracle considering this was Kunuk's first feature film.  The confidence in his story is dazzling, as seemingly throwaway scenes featuring the many uses of snow (which kid me wishes he knew about) set up payoffs hours in advance.  My favorite is the combination of slippery ice "padding" given to the sleds with the help of some saliva, the building of a celebratory igloo, and how those two moments instruct late-film tools constructed by Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq) to settle past sins committed by Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq).

The rivalry between Atanarjuat and Oki could be described as Shakespearean, but that would be doing a disservice to the specificity of the world created by Kunuk, cinematographer Norman Cohn, and screenwriter Paul Apak Angilirq.  Their conflict is as old as the human race, trying to use their specific talents to secure the love of women in the camp with Oki often falling behind despite his standing as son of the camp's leader.  The Fast Runner isn't packed with dialogue but the barbs exchanged between Atanarjuat and Oki show an economy of trust between director and writer.  So as Kunuk trusts Angilirq's sparse dialogue, so too does Angilirq trust the longer devastating moments of conflict.

One moment involves Kunuk's brutally masterful use of sound.  I got so used to the creaking and cracking of snow intertwined with labor that the arrival of a different kind of crack served as a violent shock.  Atanarjuat and Oki duel for the affections of Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu), with Kunuk placing the full upper bodies of the two men on opposite ends of the frame, and I shivered at the cold thunk of fist against skull then body against ice as they took turns battering each other.  I felt long dormant winter pains creep against my arms and legs as one then the other fell to the ice, a fight made more painful by the removal of clothing to protect them from the cold.

Oki is an all-time great villain with motivations rooted in too-human grievances and clothed with eye for his treachery.

The simple brutality of that experience makes the mythic qualities of The Fast Runner shine brighter.  That opening labor sets a baseline for how quickly the camp can move in the snow which makes Atanarjuat's later sprint toward, then away from, Oki impressive at first and worthy of legend later.  Oki himself is a beautifully realized villain standing out from the camp with his white tendril clothing like an albino octopus and too-clean visor nearly shining in the sun.  He's the perfect foil for Atanarjuat, with Ungalaaq's performance as the titular runner mixing the right amount of confidence and bashfulness to gently warm the screen.  One shot sent waves of pleasure through me when the sun flares against the camera with Ungalaaq's smile as he played with the children (and did some flirting on the side.)

When I write about "feeling" movies, I'm usually talking about emotional sensations.  There's plenty of that in The Fast Runner, but Kunuk so thoroughly embraced the story in visuals and sound that I've been restlessly pacing to think about this film clearly.  It's the most sublime infection in recent memory, bringing me back to my days as a kid running barefoot over mounds of construction sand, or later years yearning, weirdly lonely, and more than a bit horny standing outside on frozen nights with my then-girlfriend.  Sometimes I find challenging foreign epics that demand a change in how I empathize, with The Fast Runner I found an epic with a home in the space of my heart I didn't realize was vacant.  I needed this, and so might you.

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Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001)

Directed by Zacharias Kunuk.
Screenplay written by Paul Apak Angilirq.
Starring Natar Ungalaaq and Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq.

Posted by Andrew

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