Two brothers, Amaqjuaq (Pakkak Innukshuk ) and Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq) are destined to challenge the order of life in a small nomadic Inuit community (many generations ago), which has been under the evil spell of an unknown shaman. The chief’s son, Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq) resents Atanarjuat when the latter wins the lovely Atuat (Syvlvia Ivalu) as a wife, and seeks to kill him. But Atanarjuat survives escapes and runs for his life over the ice, with Oki in pursuit. And instead of revenge, he begins the process of healing the community – in his own fashion.
Review by Richard Kuipers:
It's always exciting when cinematically unchartered territory is explored on screen. The only other film to prominently feature the inhabitants and landscape of far north Canada is Robert Flaherty's 1922 documentary Nanook of the North. Eighty years later it's the residents of the newly declared (1999) Canadian territory of Nunavut who have brought one of their great folk tales to the screen.
A little confusing to begin with as the legend and its background are recounted by various members of the community, Atanarjuat rewards our patience by serving up a story rich in juicy melodrama. Murder, jealousy and infidelity are all part of this tale that proves the elements of a good yarn are the same no matter where you go. The landscape in which Atanarjuat's (Natar Ungulaaq) romance with Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu) and rivalry with hot-headed Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq) takes place is stunning to put it mildly. Even the most ordinary moments of life are exciting to watch as the ceaseless cycle of hunting and eating are depicted.
When the tempo increases it's even more compelling - Atanarjuat's naked run across the ice is an instant classic sequence in the history of the medium. The pace is deliberately slow and you could argue the film might be even better minus half an hour but there'll also be audiences who want to see another half hour of this remarkable achievement. Knowing that the keepers of the tale made this film (DOP Norman Cohn, who has lived in the region since 1985, is the only non-Inuit in key cast and crew) adds another layer of meaning. Far from being an ethnographic curio, Atarnajuat is a collective cultural expression made without concessions and it works wonderfully well.