An Inuit legend passed down through the centuries finds art-house immortalization as "The Fast Runner" (Atanarjuat), a nearly three-hour epic set within a camp of seal-hunting, igloo-building nomads. And if that description rings as frigid as the movie's Arctic setting, know that first-time feature director Zacharias Kunuk has honed in on the near-Shakespearean grandeur of a folk tale preoccupied with jealousy, murder, infidelity and revenge.
Even before we viewers can get our frost-bitten bearings, a malign spirit infests the Inuit camp, ensuring years of violence and animosity between men and women who depend on each other for survival. At the center of the maelstrom is Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq), a fleet-footed hunter despised by his rival, the bullying Oki (Peter Henry Arnatsiaq). Atanarjuat has eyes for Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu), a woman who has unfortunately been promised to Oki. Defying convention, Atarnarjuat makes a successful play for her. The festering resentment between the two sides reaches the breaking point after Atanarjuat takes the wily Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk) as his second wife. Promiscuous and lazy, Puja mounts a campaign of lies and betrayal that forces Atanarjuat to flee for his life.
Like finding one's footing on fresh ice, it takes a while for those of us with little prior knowledge of Inuit lore (you too?) to become comfortable with the customs and social structures that are trotted out with scant introduction. While we take our remedial lesson in extended, polygamous families, our eyes are enchanted by the movie's magnificent establishing shots of sun-dappled rivers and frozen tundra. Yet New York-born cinematographer Norman Cohn gets just as much play from salient close-ups. One look at a sled dog's face wagging from side to side, its tongue extended in strain, tells us everything we need to know about the forward trudge of these people's lives.
The naturalistic look is an effective counterpoint to a script (compiled by the late Paul Apak Angilirq from versions of the story told by eight Inuit elders) that revels in mysticism. Atanar-juat's hope of returning home -- and the camp's salvation from its own sin -- depend on forces that transcend the physical. Reaching that resolution takes patience: The mammoth, 172-minute movie has its share of slow passages. It picks up speed, however, as it advances toward a payoff that has much to say about the ultimate besting of evil. In this far-sighted legend, wickedness demands a more considered response than mere punishment. Arriving as it does within the current atmosphere of saber-rattling, that message is a refreshing blast of cool air.