Inuit film is a sweeping story filled with mystery and drama

After more than a century of motion pictures, it's still possible to score a first. Zacharias Kunuk's new movie, "The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat)," is the first feature-length production filmed in Inuktitut, a language of Canada's Inuit people.

It arrives in American theaters today, propelled by a heap of international prizes and buzz from last year's Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Caméra d'Or award as best first feature.

The movie is an epic in its length – three hours – and in the sweep of its story. It follows the adventures of a young Inuit nomad over 20 years, starting with a mysterious event during his childhood and then detailing his feud with a jealous rival over a woman they both love.

There's as much unbridled passion, violent conflict, and melodrama as fans could ask for, along with mystical undertones and a sex scene that would probably earn an "R" if the picture were rated.

It's a film-critic cliché to describe the setting of a movie as one of the main characters, but in this case, there's no way to avoid it. The picture was shot with digital-video equipment in Igloolik, a Canadian Arctic community where several of the cast members live.

To his credit, director Kunuk never uses the stunningly spare light, land, and sea of this extraordinary location in showy or ostentatious ways. Still, you see and feel its presence – from frantic chases across the tundra to intimate conversations in icebound igloos.

There's no central-casting office in Igloolik, so many parts in "The Fast Runner" are played by first-time actors. Several of them should keep their day jobs, but at least one has star power: Sylvia Ivalu, who plays Atuat, the woman over whom Atanarjuat and his rival develop a murderous quarrel. Her expressive face and emotive acting outdo most of the would-be celebrities Hollywood has pitched at us lately.

"The Fast Runner" would have more power if its performances were all at this level, and if the story were more tightly told.

Still, there's never been a movie quite like it. (Until now, Robert Flaherty's documentary "Nanook of the North" has been the unchallenged classic of Arctic film.) Its refusal to draw solid lines between "good" and "evil" characters is more sophisticated than the psychology of most current commercial pictures. It's well worth a trek to a theater adventurous enough to show it.

• Not rated; contains violence and sex.

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