Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner

One of the reasons I started watching, really intensely watching, movies was to see the world, so to speak. As a teenager living in rural Arizona, I didn’t have any way out of my desert hell, but I did have a satellite, and once I decided to look beyond Hollywood’s offerings, I got to see the world in my living room.

And so began my love affair with foreign films; in that vein, I watched “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner,” Zacharias Kunuck’s 2001 feature-film debut and the first film to be shot entirely in Inuit.

After a confusing 10 minutes of background, “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner” kicks into gear with the story of two brothers: Amaqjuaq (Pakak Innuksuk), the older brother known for his strength and Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq), the younger brother known for his speed. Their family has traditionally been the whipping posts of their tribe, mostly due to an evil spirit infecting the leader’s family. But together the younger men are able to keep Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), the leader’s son, from causing too much havoc in their lives.

That is until Oki and Atanarjuat end up fighting for the hand of Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu), promised to Oki but in love with Atanarjuat. Of course, our hero wins the duel and marries the girl. And here our hero also makes a classic era in judgment: after winning another man’s intended, it’s probably not a good idea to take that man’s sister as a second wife. But Atanarjuat marries the scheming Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk) anyway, and when she brings about a family tragedy, in a breathtaking sequence, Atanarjuat takes off running, setting the stage for an apocalyptic showdown with his enemy.

It’s a grand, epic story that has a lot going for it, despite some hurdles. But the good feelings didn’t last long.

My real problem with “Atanarjuat” isn’t the acting, although with a cast of mostly untrained actors that is quite bothersome at times, but the pacing. For the first 90 minutes, I was totally gripped by this story of an intra-tribal blood feud, but as soon as the tragedy occurs and our hero takes off, the movie drags and drags and drags. The pacing is so awkward that more than once, my mind starting wandering because the onscreen action was, well, nonexistent.

At the fatal two hour mark, I realized that I was watching “The Lion King,” a “Lion King” that outstayed its welcome by 90 minutes and actually had less complexity than the Disney film it bares so many similarities to (and a film that I would have preferred to watch). I can appreciate the effort involved here, and I can understand that this could not have been the easiest film to make, but despite its good intentions, that overlong third act soured the good feelings I had and actually left me sorry I made the time to watch the movie in the first place.

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001)

Directed by Zacharias Kunuck

Written by Paul Apak Angilirq


Natar Ungalaaq (Atanarjuat)

Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq (Oki)

Sylvia Ivalu (Atuat)