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movies: Epic Triumph

Spellbinding visuals and native history make "The Fast Runner" uniquely compelling.

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But "Fast Runner" offers so much more than mere insight into an exotic culture or the rare chance to see a locale few will ever visit.

Set in an unspecified time far in the past, "The Fast Runner" is essentially a small-town tale of raw emotions rooted in a doomed love triangle. Combining a timeless Inuit myth with universal themes of love, betrayal, jealousy, revenge, mysticism and murder, Kunuk crafts a sprawling Shakespearean epic set against a frigid, unforgiving icy landscape.

At the center of that lover's triangle is Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq), who's grown up with the premonition of a strange evil at work in his community. When he falls in love with Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu), a comely young maiden with sparkling eyes that belie her always-serene smile, the trouble begins. You see, Atuat has been promised to the camp leader's son Oki (Henry Arnatsiaq).

The dispute is settled in a bizarre display of machismo involving a head-bumping competition. After Atanarjuat wins, Oki flies into a jealous, murderous rage. Setting his sights on destroying this seemingly perfect love, Oki enlists the help of the flirtatious Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk), to try and drive a wedge between the young lovers. When true love withstands all his evil machinations, Oki gathers his henchmen and attacks his rival's family and friends.

Atanarjuat's brother is killed, but our hero escapes, and we sit transfixed watching him dash naked across 20 miles of ice floes. This is an astonishing, breathtaking visual that serves as the movie's centerpiece. Again and again, Atanarjuat's bare feet leap over mushy puddles of ice, without ever breaking stride. His destination, from our point of view, seems to be a spot close to nowhere. There's no landmark we can discern, just an endless flatland stretching toward the horizon.

Nothing in "The Fast Runner" is given a rosy glow; the Inuit existence is harsh and unsentimentally portrayed. One minute Kunuk may give us a scene of pure romance, only to follow it moments later with a brutal rape or a graphic murder where the assailants use sharpened sticks.

Cinematographer Norman Cohn deftly captures these disparate scenes and the larger-than-life emotions through a masterful use of color and light. We may think of the Arctic as an endless blanket of white, but Cohn shows us there's also blue, as the sky glows through the cracks of an igloo; the warming orange of spring sunshine; and the shocking purple of a flower Atanarjuat stops to pick.

As is the inherent nature of all epics, good inevitably confronts evil in "The Fast Runner," with the final disposition reflected in the evocative calm of an Inuit baby's eyes.

As we sit feeling the generational weight of those piercing eyes, Kunuk brings us back to reality, showing us footage of the film crews struggling to push their cameras through the snow on sleds. That juxtaposition is purposely jarring, underscoring just how astonishing it is that "The Fast Runner" ever got made. But it's our incredible good fortune that it did. S *****



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