This is quite possibly the best Canadian film of all time, which deservedly won the Camera D’Or in Cannes for Best First Feature. I mean it’s sexier than Egoyan’s “Exotica,” lonelier than Shebib’s “Goin’ Down the Road,” more desolate than Jutra’s “Mon Oncle Antoine,” more anthropological than “Nanook of the North,” more apocalyptic than McKellar’s “Last Night,” more hardcore than McDonald’s “Hard Core Logo,” contains action sequences that would astound even Hollywood producers of schlocky serials like “Canadian Mounties Versus Atomic Invaders,” and lives and breathes the climate and geography like a pure heroin injection of Can-Lit. Writer / Director Kunuk’s only real Canadian cinematic rival is Guy Maddin, whose semi-obscurity proves that his work is unfortunately not as accessible as Atanarjuat definitely is.
It’s a three-hour epic claustrophobically jammed into a tiny Inuit community in the Northwest Territories before the coming of white men, with gritty extreme closeups of dog tongues wagging, bloody meat, fur, sweat, sex, combat, yellow snow and food. Some favourite lines: “If you want to lift a rock, think of it like a woman’s butt!” and “What’s she doing out there… f*****g with spirits?”
Atanarjuat, the “Fast Runner,” and his brother Amaqjuaq, the “Strong One”, come into conflict with another dude over a chick. When Atanarjuat wins her in a fair contest – the scene in which he and his romantic rival battle by taking turns calmly punching one another in the head is an apex of what cinematic conflict can be – we know that nothing is really settled. The simmering small-town-style animosity is sometimes violent, sometimes underhanded, but always entertaining.
Likewise, the overwhelming compositions, from dizzying empty vistas to long expressive portraits and relationships revealed through blocking – hallmarks of Western art cinema which this Northern filmmaker seems to have studied thoroughly – couple hilariously with the burping, chewing, grunting and scratching tribal social life.
Further, proving Kunuk is not as simple as his noble-savage media persona appears, there is one note of technical sophistication which was perhaps an accidental discovery but must have been deliberately left in the film with world-shaking subtlety. In almost every scene, lens flares highlight the awesome midnight sun and bring out the starkness of the terrain, the shining snow, and the deadly stretches of freezing water; but since this movie was shot on video, the lens flares are hexagonal. The mathematical shapes and flare patterns are the most rigid and modern forms in the entire movie. It’s the most understated anachronism imaginable, especially since video has now reached a textural richness whereby dramas shot on tape don’t feel like the evening news anymore. I hesitate to analyze such a concise formal device, but it seems to modernize the story’s context in the least intrusive way possible. The closing-credits behind-the-scenes footage of Kunuk and his modern film crew still came as a culture shock after nearly three hours of arctic pre-contact isolation.
If there’s one odd note, it’s the strength and charm of Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq) in the lead role. Canadian heroes are supposed to be losers! What gives?