It’s always been difficult to transfer myth from the page (or, in many instances, oral tradition) to film; one need only recall that the best cinematic treatment of a Homeric work, for instance, is “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”–hardly a literal rendering of “The Odyssey.” There are occasional successes, of course: Fritz Lang’s “Die Niebelungen” and Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky” and “Ivan the Terrible” are notable, even if the Russian director’s films represent mythic history rather than pure myth. Otherwise we’re left with juvenile stuff like Mario Camerini’s “Ulysses” (1958) and Robert Wise’s “Helen of Troy” (1955), or the various Ray Harryhausen versions of the ancient tales, not to mention the innumerable Italian sword-and-sandal entries of the fifties and sixties and the junky stabs as medieval epics like “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.”
That’s one reason why Zacharias Kunuk’s “Atanarjuat,” Englished as “The Fast Runner,” is so notable: timeless and otherworldly, it brings a myth vividly to life on screen, remaining true to the original while doing so. Basically the film presents the Inuit version of the tale of the hero who brings law and principle to a disordered primitive society–a universal story that appears in virtually all cultures in different forms. This variant, which has come down among the native inhabitants of the Canadian Arctic through centuries of storytelling, involves the titular hero, the younger of two brothers (the other is Amaqjuaq) who are part of a small group of families governed by a shaman whose rule has been contaminated by violence. The legacy of evil has been inherited by the shaman’s son Oki, whose betrothed Atuat is drawn instead to Atanarjuat; he defeats Oki in a contest of strength and claims Atuat as his wife, earning Oki’s unending hatred. Oki’s sister, the calculating Puja who’s always longed for Atanarjuat, inveigles her way into his household and ultimately gives her brother grounds to attempt to kill both Amaqjuaq and Atanarjuat. He manages to slay only the older sibling, however; Atanarjuat escapes the ambush, fleeing his pursuers naked across the snow-covered tundra–his speed saves him, though only barely. He takes refuge with Qulitalik, the elderly brother of Panikpak, Oki’s grandmother; Qulitalik is returning to the clan after a long absence in response to his sister’s mysterious summons that he assist in cleansing the group of the blood-evil that has long plagued it. (Panikpak, it should be noted, has also been Atuat’s most ardent supporter throughout.) Eventually a recovered Atanarjuat accompanies Qulitalik to confront Oki, and together with Panikpak they use both strength and magic to restore right order in the clan.
As fashioned by the late Paul Apak Angilirq, Kunuk and Norman Cohn from tellings of the legend collected from eight Inuit elders, “Atanarjuat” relates the story baldly, keeping the motivations simple, not attempting to explain away the magical elements, and avoiding pseudo-poetic techniques in favor of a straightforward simplicity. That keeps the mythic character of the piece intact, and so too do the unforced performances of the cast (partly professional and partly not) and the icy, desolate yet strangely beautiful locations, which lend the picture an air of authenticity that a huge budget could never buy. Kunuk’s direction is similarly austere and unhurried; by refusing to hasten things along, he builds an atmosphere of overwhelming emptiness that’s reminiscent of the mood David Lean generated in a similarly harsh climate at the other end of the temperature scale in “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Of course, that desert epic was a huge production in every sense, with a starry cast, a massive budget and a tried-and-tested crew. “Atanarjuat,” on the other hand, was clearly made on a far smaller scale; out-takes included during the end credits show a tiny group of actors and behind-the-camera folk operating under the most challenging circumstances without any frills or pretensions. It’s the directness of the result–the willingness to let the ancient story unfold slowly, like a languid dream of the past, without apology for the mysterious beliefs than underlie the characters’ actions–that makes it a rare achievement, a document of anthropological as well as cinematic interest. “Atanarjuat” will be too deliberate and obscure for many viewers, but the adventurous should find it an extraordinary experience.