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Centuries ago, in what would become the Canadian Arctic, Atuat is promised to the malevolent Oki, son of the leader of their tribe. But Atuat loves the good-natured Atanarjuat, who ultimately finds a way to marry her. Oki's sister, Puja also fancies Atanarjuat, and when she causes strife between him and his brother Amaqjuaq, Oki seizes the opportunity to wreak a terrible revenge on Atanarjuat. Written by
Shannon Patrick Sullivan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
It's hard to believe that all of this praise is honest.
No, I'll go further: most of it could not possibly be honest. We all want this to be a good film, and we all want to be able to say that it's a good film, but we can only do so by thinking so by ignoring the plain evidence of our eyes and persuading others to do likewise.
The first thing we must ignore is the lousy cinematography. "Atanarjuat" was shot not on film but on digital video ... and don't believe anyone who offers the justification, feeble even if true, that it's just too hard to shoot on film in sub-zero temperatures. It was done in the 1920s and it's still done today. Is it perhaps too hard to shoot 35mm inside igloos at night? Not inherently so; after all, Stanley Kubrick shot "Barry Lyndon" by candlelight back in the mid-1970s. There's no excuse for shooting as badly as this when it can be done properly and, for that matter, no excuse for shooting AT ALL if it can only be done this badly. The ice vistas cry out for the sensuous subtlety and razor-sharp precision of film. It's an insult to the material to settle for less. Imagine how badly "Lawrence of Arabia" would have been spoiled if David Lean had said: "Ack, the sand, ack, the heat I think I'll shoot on video."
Make no mistake, the digital video ruins the film all by itself. It's ugly to look at (we can tell, by a process of mental reconstruction, THAT the ice fields are beautiful, but we cannot actually see the beauty). Outlines are fuzzy; it's hard not to squint at them. Necessary details are lost. The pervasive lens flares nearly drove me nuts. In places there's a weird blotchy purplish discolouration that I'm at a loss to explain. The lighting continuity errors (and there are many) are somehow made more obvious. And although the digital technology is only indirectly to blame for this the amateurish, Dogme-style framing is infuriating. Some say the digital video is the only flaw, which, apart from being false, is like saying: "It's a good film, apart from the fact that all 243,360 frames are terrible."
At first I thought that the story would be as tedious and incomprehensible as the first hour or perhaps it only feels like an hour promises, but luckily, the outlines of a true epic begin to appear and make it possible for a conscientious audience member to make it through to the end. (It's good that the film is so long or at least, it would be good, if it were at all well made. Perhaps it's good anyway, as it gives us time to get used to the film's many failings and begin to ignore them.) We start to care about the central character. This is by no means the utter disaster the opening hour (half hour, whatever) would suggest. But not being an utter disaster is hardly much of an achievement. The acting is at best just barely convincing, at worst painfully unconvincing, the music is uninspiring, the editing has, so far as I can tell, not been thought out at all and the entire supernatural basis of the story has been muffed completely. It would have been franker to leave out the sorcery altogether, rather than to have the cinematographic equivalent of a half-mumbled, "Oh, hang on a minute, I forgot: the tribal elder was possessed by the Lord of the Walruses, and ... uh ... some magic stuff happened."
These are not nit-picks; they are deep flaws that completely undermine the story's sweep. Nor are they aspects of the film that anyone (except children, perhaps) could honestly claim not to have noticed. We cannot but conclude: the lavish praise bestowed on "Atanarjuat" has not been offered in good faith.
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