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At the Movies

Ancient lessons


The Fast Runner is the most beautiful and astonishing movie of the year, a rare experience worth seeking out despite its near three-hour length. Director Zacharias Kunuk, who grew up largely in Igoolik, on a small island in the North Baffin region of the Canadian arctic, already had years of experience making documentary videos about the Inuit. He describes his first feature film as “a universal story with emotions people all over the world can understand. It is also totally Inuit: a story we all heard as children, told and acted in Inuit. We show how Inuit lived hundreds of years ago and what their problems were, starting with their marriage problems.”

Although “The Fast Runner” will be studied by anthropologists for its documentary value, most of us will respond primarily to its epic power and sense of mystery. There is a fascination with the sense of primal evil and ultimate exorcism and all the powerful elements of Greek tragedy. The plot, centering on the rivalry between two cousins, the noble Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq, the only professional actor in the cast) and the wicked Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq) for the love of the beautiful Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu) is a vivid recreation of an ancient legend passed on to teach young Intuit the dangers of setting personal desire above the needs of the group.

The sense of the uncanny shimmers in the opening shot as the eerie, plaintive wail of wolves fills the expanse of Arctic sky. An initial difficulty in distinguishing between the different Inuit characters is gradually overcome by the specificity of detail: The women’s face tattoos become as natural as the dogs pulling sleds through the snow and seal oil lamps in the igloos. Characterization is vivid, and the dialogue is direct and down to earth; the English subtitles are particularly well done. The memorable central scene -- which justifies the movie’s title -- grows out of the murderous plot of Oki to kill both Atanarjuat and his brother while they are sleeping. Amaqjuaq is murdered before he can rouse himself, but a naked Atanarjuat bursts out of their tepee and rushes over endless ice fields, long pursued by three killers before they acknowledge defeat.

Clan relations had been further complicated when Puja, Oki’s sister (Lucy Tulugarjuk), all too willingly went caribou hunting with Atanarjuat and became his second wife. The cycle of vengeance is broken only after a ritual fight between Atanarjuat and Oki, a ceremony of exorcism, and a formal declaration of forgiveness by the grandmother, accompanied by the excommunication of Oki and Puja. Ultimately, “The Fast Runner” is the story of clan cooperation and survival; its meaning is underscored by the practice of naming children for specific forebears, and we gradually grow accustomed to hearing a grandmother address a child as “little mother.”

Just as the movie’s story teaches cooperation, its production, in cooperation with the National Film Board of Canada, was a realization of Inuit-style community. Scriptwriter Paul Apak Angilirq recorded eight elders telling their own versions of the legend as it had been passed down to them. During the filming on the sea-ice, sprawling tundra and rocky flatlands around Igoolik, care was taken to make the film in terms of Inuit values, using an all-Inuit cast and a 90 percent Inuit technical crew. As New York-born cinematographer Norman Cohn says, “Conventional film-making has a hierarchy like the military. Every relationship is vertical, every individual knows exactly who is one notch ahead of him or one notch below. Inuit aren’t like that. ... We made our film in an Inuit way, through consensus and collaboration. It takes longer, but people feel more natural and relaxed, and the result is visible on the screen.”

Film-lovers know enough by now to see anything Eric Rohmer directs, and at 82 he’s still eager to try something new. In The Lady and the Duke, set in the days when the French Revolution had lapsed into political terror, he makes use of modern digital techniques that enable actors to step in and out of painted historical backdrops, enhancing the fictional quality of our experience. Some may miss the comic tone of such earlier successes as My Night at Maud’s and Claire’s Knee, but the historical focus -- the movie is based on the journals of Grace Elliott, an Englishwoman who lived in Paris during the period it covers -- does not impair the elegance of Rohmer’s dialogue.

Elliott (Lucy Russell), the lady of the movie’s title, once the mistress of the Prince of Wales (later George IV) and of the Duke of Orléans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), has not abandoned her royalist sympathies. She and the duke remain genuinely fond of each other, but the latter has embraced the republican cause and has little respect for his courtly relatives. Elliott proves herself as courageous as she is charming. Her principled self-assurance dominates the film’s most suspenseful sequence, in which she puts her own life at risk by hiding an aristocrat from the forces of the revolution. Although most of the scenes were shot indoors, we get a strong sense of danger in the streets after January 1792 when Louis XVI is captured and Elliott is forced to witness a mob parading with the head of a friend on a stake.

The duke had hoped to be a moderating influence but is forced to confess that the crowd is now leading him. His subtle debate with Elliott is conducted with both passion and decorum: She is loyal to her friends, and he has given his trust to the republic. Rohmer is not interested in costume drama nor in explaining the historical factors that made the revolution inevitable; what he does make clear is that it becomes harder and harder to maintain one’s principles once events are out of control. Although Elliott gets the duke to promise to vote against the execution of his cousin the king, his eventual abstention reveals the weakness of his political and moral understanding.

“The Lady and the Duke” is not a love story, though the two principals retain their affection for each other throughout. Raising complex questions about history and ethics, this very French movie openly admires an Englishwoman who opposed republicanism; at the same time it exhibits a sympathetic understanding of the portly Orléans, whose political idealism was overwhelmed by a reign of vengeance. Rohmer makes his history lesson both nuanced and entertaining: In a penultimate sequence when extremism threatens to land Elliott in jail, it is Robespierre (François-Marie Banier) who spares her because the revolution has more pressing goals. At the very end, however, Robespierre himself has lost power.

Thirteen Conversations About One Thing is a puzzle that one viewing didn’t enable me to crack, but the time in the theater didn’t seem wasted. Jill Sprecher’s film raises somber questions about happiness and luck as they affect a series of dissatisfied New Yorkers, shifting quickly from one story to another and suggesting surprising ways in which its characters are connected. We gradually realize that the events being presented on the screen do not always occur in the same order as that in which we experience them.

The screenplay, by Sprecher and her sister Karen, prefaces each sequence with a cliché about fate, chance and everyday misunderstanding -- “Wisdom comes suddenly,” “The mind is its own place” -- but their cumulative implications seem meager. Walker, a Columbia physics professor (John Turturro), who later writes the ominous word irreversible on his classroom blackboard, has a meal with his wife (Amy Irving) that projects an atmosphere of near-total alienation. An ambitious prosecuting attorney (Matthew McConaughey) rushes from courtroom success to a barroom discussion with Gene, a fatalistic insurance officer (Alan Arkin). Beatrice, a young woman who spends her days as a housecleaner (Clea DuVall), is sustained by the conviction that everything will work out for the best.

Developments are deliberately inconclusive and ironic. The professor remains self-absorbed and dissatisfied even after taking on a colleague as mistress. The lawyer, driving off from a hit-and-run accident that leaves Beatrice badly injured, plunges into an office conflict between ambition and his ethical conception of justice. Gene, depressed by his failure to build a relationship with his son, is aggravated by the overly upbeat attitude of one of his assistants. During a company downsizing, he fires the optimist but diplomatically passes on a strong recommendation to a friendly executive. Beatrice, not yet fully recovered, sheds some of her earlier naiveté but emerges from a brief lapse into cynicism.

Although “Thirteen Conversations” is a movie that encourages reflection, it can easily seem somewhat precious: The piano music behind the scenes seems to conflict with the naturalism of the performances, and there are too many still shots of empty streets. Nevertheless, Sprecher has a shrewd sense of foreshadowing and has made fine use of a strong cast, with Alan Arkin outstanding in a role he endows with both a realistic world-weariness and a comic edge.

Joseph Cunneen, regular film reviewer for NCR, can be reached at Scunn24219@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, July 5, 2002