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Film Review: Set in the Canadian Arctic, "Maliglutit" Puts Man in his Place

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The new film “Maliglutit” translates as “Followers” — though its English title is “Searchers,” a reference to John Ford’s 1956 classic.

Ford’s movie, “The Searchers,” features one of John Wayne’s finest performances as Ethan Edwards, a tormented Civil War veteran driven to find and kill his niece because he fears she’s been “tainted” by the Comanche tribe that’s kidnapped her.

The director examines the myths of not only the American West, but also America at large, shining a light on the patriarchy, racism and colonialism that served as building blocks for the foundation of this society.

“The Searchers” isn’t a polemic, but an existentially beautiful work that uses Monument Valley in Arizona and Utah an as a metaphor for the lonely soul sickness of hatred and exploitation. A significant victim of Ethan Edwards’ bitterness is Ethan Edwards. And this irony is driven home in the iconic final shot, in which Edwards disappears into the West, a doomed and solitary outsider, as seen through a doorway from inside the sort of home that he’ll probably never again know.

In “Maliglutit,” Zacharias Kunuk and Natar Ungalaag strip Ford’s narrative down to its essentials, keeping only the rudimentary outlines of the kidnapping plot as well as the basic notion of landscape as an emotional barometer. The patriarchal text remains, because such a theme unites almost all known cultures. Kunuk and Ungalaag also reprise and cleverly reposition the final shot of “The Searchers.”

Their film is set in Nunavut, a punishingly cold portion of the Canadian arctic, in 1913 among Inuit tribes. Right away, “Maliglutit” captivates with its docu-dramatic grasp of detail.

The narrative opens on several men as they’re cast out of this society for withholding food and sleeping with others’ wives. The discussion of this expulsion is set inside an igloo, and Kunuk and Ungalaag convey the simultaneous reassurance and claustrophobia of life in a community that’s often huddled in on itself, bundled in fur around small fires, which radiate viscerally palpable warmth. Later, we see a man undressing, stripping his furs off until naked, and eventually climbing into his bed of fur and quilts with his wife. Such a moment conveys the brief relief of exposure, correspondingly lowering our guard for the atrocity that follows.

Kunuk and Ungalaag spend nearly a third of the film’s 93 minutes acquainting us with the intimate details of the Inuit culture. There are first-person shots of dog sledding, particularly one that places us in a sled as it gradually departs from home, an igloo fading into the distance. The dogs driving the sleds often are glimpsed in poignant repose, regarding their masters, some of whom are up to terrible things. There are extended scenes of men carving frozen fish on the ground, eating slices that resemble jerky. The snowy landscapes are gorgeous and terrifying, with jagged mountaintops that serve as a kind of rough equivalent to the peaks and valleys that abound in Ford’s film.

As a thriller, “Maliglutit” is less compelling. The wronged protagonist, Kuanana (Benjamin Kunuk), is a decent yet simple character who lacks stature until a memorably violent conflict at the narrative’s climax. In fact, the humans, who often are obscured by heavy clothing, are dwarfed by the surroundings to the point of abstraction, which is the directors’ design.

“Maliglutit” is a survivor’s tale of poetically practical harshness. Its human dimension is secondary because in this realm humans are understood to be secondary to the godlike elements — at best. S

“Maliglutit” plays at the Bijou, 304 E. Broad St., from April 27-30. For tickets and show times, consult the theater’s website at bijoufilmcenter.org.

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