Once in a while, a reviewer will see a film for which it is almost impossible to write a review. Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) is such a film. The reason it is difficult to write a review for the film is mainly because the first words that came to this reviewer's mind were "timeless", "transcendent" and "triumphant" and it would be incredibly difficult to use all those words without sounding hokey and uninteresting. But the movie does warrant such words and it definitely makes you leave the theater feeling like you have become a better person for watching the film. And so it should.
The story is that of Atanarjuat, the son of Tulimaq, a man who has fallen on bad luck after an evil spirit had killed the leader of his community and used the aid of the leader's son to do so. Atanarjuat and his older brother, Amaqjuaq, grow up to be pillars of their community, becoming excellent hunters and popular amongst their people. They are good-natured men who live good lives and support each other to no end. Oki is the son of Sauri, the treacherous son who helped in the killing of his father, and is a man haunted by an evil spirit that engenders within him selfishness, jealousy and murderous rage. The story sets up these three men in a classic story of good versus evil.
The film is a retelling of an ancient Inuit story handed down through the years by Inuit elders to children in the hope of teaching them the downfalls of putting your personal desires ahead of the good of the community. And the film gives you just that, a feeling that you are being told a long-past, wonderful tale by a wise man while sitting around a campfire. This charm, so rarely found in film these days, comes from the minimalist approach throughout the entire movie. There are no fancy camera shots here, no big-budget sets or sweeping reveals of the environment. Instead, we are given a straightforward, bare-bones story with images that suck you right into the world in which it unfolds.
The power of the film is that it exists in this wonderful other world that most viewers have never seen. It does not manufacture any of its surroundings and therefore feels more like a documentary than a fictional drama. Yet the film doesn't dwell on showing us this world and shies away from preaching and teaching. Instead, it concentrates on telling its story and let the setting completely engross you. It is this focus on the story and the characters that makes the film endearing. In a tale that seemingly would inspire so many soap operas, the characters set this film apart from normal cinema. The charm that the actors put across and the love you feel for the characters is strong and true. Yes, they are flawed people, but that is part of what makes them lovable and, more importantly, real.
It is almost impossible to overly praise this film. It is a wonderful movie in many ways and works on many levels that very few flicks do or even attempt. What is astonishing is how easily it achieves its goals. It goes to the heart of what great cinema is and that is telling great stories in an entertaining and interesting way. One can only hope that a movie as triumphant, transcendent and timelessly magnificent as Atanarjuat will endure and find a way to slip into mainstream cinema culture.