A review of “The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat)” by Jeanne Aufmuth


Stars: *** 1/2

Rating: Not Rated, but could be PG-13 for nudity and violence

Run Time: 2 hours, 48 minutes



Canada’s arctic light shines bright on this frozen tundra soap opera that breathes extraordinary life into the private existence of the Inuit people and their daily struggle to survive.

Blood feuds and primitive courting rituals are just the tip of the iceberg.  The setting is the indefinite past in Canada’s Nunavut Territory, a vast, icy wasteland that offers a harsh existence to the Inuit people who dwell there.  Brothers Amaqjuaq and Atanarjuat (Pakkak Innushuk and Natar Ungalaaq) are coming-of-age the Inuit way, fighting for a place in the tribal pecking order by providing solid food and shelter for their people.  Atanarjuat has his eye on a pretty tribal girl named Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu), who is already promised to Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), the malevolent son of Sauri, the Chief.

The matter is resolved simply and forcefully.  Atanarjuat and Oki duke it out for the seal-fur-clad beauty, using fists to determine who will win Atuat as his wife.  Atanarjuat is triumphant, and a bitter rivalry is born. Atanarjuat and Atuat create a happy home igloo-style; she heavy with child and he setting off in search of Caribou to stock the winter’s meat supply.

On the journey, Atanarjuat makes an unscheduled stop at Oki’s homestead for warmth and nourishment.  Oki insists that Atanarjuat take his sister Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk) along on the arduous expedition for moral and physical support.  Puja is the Inuit easy-girl, and wastes no time in finding her way into Atanarjuat’s bed.  Bingo, wife number two.

Back at the homestead with the winter’s sustenance and an additional female psyche to contend with, the dynamic is pure tension.  Atuat and Puja are at odds; Atuat unhappy and resentful towards Puja’s lazy attitude, and Puja bitterly jealous of Atuat’s First Wife status.  When the intimate family unit wake up one morning to find Puja in flagrante delicto with eldest brother (and very married) Amaqjuaq, all hell breaks loose.

What’s not to love about a steamy, melodramatic love triangle?  Women jockeying for power, testosterone spinning out of control, and the inherent evil of an ancient Inuit curse. Pulsing cultural rhythms and primeval taboos. The white-on-white landscape is in direct contrast to the dark evils of murder, polygamy, and tribal backstabbing.  On a spiritual level, the deeply virtuous tribe members occasionally fall short of their own moral expectations, rendering them human and extremely accessible. 

Visually, “Fast Runner” is breathtaking.  Endless miles of snow and ice, broken by gritty acres of stone and seaweed.  The sharp crunch of bootsteps on the frozen soil, offering the chilly sensation of bitter cold. Sumptuous mammal-fur clothing and claustrophobic ice-bound lifestyle lend ambiance with a Capital A. Near three-hour running time does nothing to deter from this marvelous movie experience.