Lost in the Movies: Atanarjuat (Best of the 21st Century?)

Atanarjuat (Best of the 21st Century?)

#93 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series in which I view, for the first time, some of the most critically acclaimed films of the previous decade.

While he is an infant, Atanarjuat's family goes hungry. The boy's father, an outcast and laughing-stock, can’t hunt to save his life – literally; the other men tease him, asking if his wife will hunt while he stays behind, sewing and cooking. That's humiliation in this community of hardy hunters; still, the hunger must be worse than humiliation. Atanarjuat is too young to comprehend the situation, but his elder brother Amaqjuaq soaks it all in grimly – particularly the mother’s advice: “You must never forget to take care of Atanarjuat.” Somberly, the little boy reaches up to his baby brother, holding out a scrap of walrus heart (which a friend of the family, pitying their destitution, smuggled in to the starving brood). Tellingly, the half-asleep infant does not respond – it’s as if even at this early age he is confident in his own ability to survive, and perhaps complacent in the sense that his family will take care of him.

When we meet Atanarjuat and Amaqjuaq as adults (played by Natar Ungalaaq and Pakak Innuksuk), the big brother is still looking out for the little one. Atanarjuat is a skilled runner and hunter, weak and dreamy in other respects, but holding onto his lifelong faith in survival and confidence in family security. In the course of this striking and stirring epic, that second feeling will diminish drastically, as Atanarjuat is forced to look out for himself. But that first feeling – the confidence in survival – will only grow, and be based on a firmer foundation, because indeed Atanarjuat (the “fast runner” of the English title) will endure what kills other men, and the experience will only make him stronger.

Atanarjuat was the first movie ever recorded in the Inuit language, with a cast and crew almost entirely Inuit (its writer, who interviewed numerous tribal elders to consolidate the various interpretations of the titular myth, tragically died of cancer while the film was in production). A 3-hour Inuit epic may seem like challenging viewing to many outside of the culture, but as with any good story Atanarjuat is rich with universal connotations, and pregnant with delightful particulars that make the story human as well as mythical. The film is truly a 21st century epic, in its narrative scope and structure in addition to its length – but it’s an epic with a twist, or rather a couple twists.

For one, the film’s cast and landscape are sparse; even epics set in the desert usually contain scenes of swarming armies. For another, Atanarjuat was shot digitally and that fresh look gives us a new kind of epic: call it the home movie as mythmaking. The unblinking eye of video records reality with a different feel than celluloid, and it lends the chases and lovemaking and fights of the film a quality of both concrete actuality and slightly offbeat irreality. Anyway, it is only when the mythic elements (the exiled hero, the vengeance upon the usurper, the parricide, the returned king, etc.) come to the forefront that this unusual quality becomes apparent. For a while, the mythology is relatively subdued – the first half of the movie concerns the sometimes comical romantic and sexual adventures of our hero as he woos the shy Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu) away from her arrogant betrothed (the chief’s son, Oki – a scowling Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq).

Then Atanarjuat falls in love with Oki’s sister, Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk), and for a while he tries to reconcile the two relationships – sharing his bed not just with two wives but his brother and sister-in-law. This ends in disaster (Puja is caught having sex with Amaqjuaq – which isn’t surprising given that they’re sandwiched between her husband and his wife while doing the deed), and the matter turns dark. Oki and his sidekicks launch a sneak attack, stabbing the tent in which the two brothers sleep; Amaqjuaq is killed, while Atanarjuat flees naked across the ice, his feet bloody, his whole body wet and freezing. Yet he escapes, and his stint as epic hero begins.

Up to this point, the film has been delightfully naturalistic, relishing not broadly-drawn interactions but highly specific encounters between individuals. Lucy Tulugarjuk is a flirtatious firecracker as Puja (irresistably adorable, even when she's being evil), and while eventually we can see that she’s a femme fatale it’s not at all hard to sense why Atanarjuat is drawn to her. Their night together on a hunting excursion (when her family, strangely, almost seems to pimp her out to her brother’s former rival) is one of the highlights of the film, charging with erotic energy potentially harmless interactions – the singing of a song, the warming of frozen hands – all while the characters not only have their clothes on but are bundled in furs and skins several inches thick.

After the murder of Amaqjuaq and the escape of Atanarjuat the film builds its epic, tragic tone with lyrical sequences of sharp beauty and dramatic episodes of tense excitement and at times dark and dirty humor (at one point, Oki is hunting for Atanarjuat and, unable to find him, stops to urinate…as it turns out, right on to the leaf pile our hero is hiding under). Eventually Atanarjuat will make his way home, aided by a spell – cast vicariously upon a white rabbit – which makes Oki suddenly soft and welcoming towards his former foe. The stage is set for a violent reprisal, but the filmmakers have something else in mind. Atanarjuat beats up his enemies, whom he’s lured into a painstakingly crafted igloo, and then spares their lives, telling them that the killing must stop.

It’s a bold move on the part of writer/director Zacharias Kunuk, writer Paul Apak Angilirq and their collaborators. Though the press materials did not acknowledge it at the time, this is a direct subversion of the original myth. As a cinematic approach to oral history (part of the project’s intention was to pass the legend on to future generations) the move is highly questionable, adding a modern and highly Westernized (specifically Christian) spin on an ancient tale, as Justin Shubow argues in the fascinating critique “Cold Comfort” in The American Prospect. Judging the film as an independent work rather than a duty-bound “interpretation,” the decision to end in nonviolence is both compelling and problematic.

On the one hand, the new ending makes some dramatic sense, as it breaks the bonds of a curse which has haunted the narrative from the beginning (when a strange shaman entered the community and killed its leader). It also completes Atanarjuat’s growth from protected boy to responsible leader – now he has not only developed a skill for violence, he's transcended it (the scene also provides a contrast with the vicious yet very orderly fight in which Atanarjuat wins Atuat from Oki). On the other hand, this conclusion does seem somewhat out-of-place in the world we’ve seen onscreen, a world devoid of sentimentality and devoted to a no-nonsense brand of duty and endurance. And on a first viewing, at least, it seems hard to sense where Atanarjuat’s sudden penchant for mercy came from – it feels a bit like an authorial imposition, rather than a natural development of the character.

Following this climax, there is a conclusion in which the shaman’s spirit is exorcised from the community; it’s a not-entirely-successful reversion to ritualistic playacting, in which the evil haunting the community is personified. Next to the film’s otherwise “natural” mysticism – with the occasional fleeting glimpse of a spirit – the sequence felt too literal to me, and the execution is a bit muddled as if the filmmakers and actors weren’t quite sure what to do with in the context of their overall style. But it points to how ambitious the film’s scope is – embracing, as it does, semidocumentary observation, historical recreation, mythological stylization, and at times even theatrical representation. In most instances, Atanarjuat is resoundingly successful – it’s a major triumph and a film that I suspect will reward countless viewings over time.

Previous film: The Headless Woman
Next film: In Praise of Love

Read the comments on Wonders in the Dark, where this review was originally published.


onplaytv said...

No, the tradition (in soooo many oral history storytelling around the globe) is precisely TELLING IT! Changing it, rephrasing it, recounting it... even subvertin it And the very core in this case, the north american natives - really in the north -, is all about that. Without the gut to get it just by watching the movie, you can go and read about it, study it.

Joel Bocko said...

That's a really interesting re-contextualization, which highlights the tradition as something still living and breathing, rather than something frozen in the past.

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