i'll be honest up front: i think i like this film for what it attempts, or what it brings, that for what it actually is. as a film it suffers from being unclear at times, for running too long (it's just under three hours), and yet manages to keep a simple, spartan storyline that does not build upon some of the character interactions and arcs and which is somewhat confusing in the beginning. it's major flaw, however, is that the evil spirit that infects the tribe is simply not played strong enough for me. for a good portion of the film, the evil spirit can be easily forgotten, and you can think of the actions of the tribesmen, as being simple greed and the worse of human behaviour.
but, to run down the film, it begins with atanarjuat's father at a ceremony where the evil spirit infects the tribe, and he begins having bad luck, which changes when his two sons, atanarjuat and his brother (whose name i have forgotten how to spell properly, but which also begins with an a) become men. atanarjuat, the fast runner, is in love with the woman betrothed to oki, and the first hour and a half is about the trials he goes through to win her, and then his marriage to oki's sister, and then oki's brutal attack that sends atanarjuat running, naked, across the artic ice. it's a fabulous piece, and the scene where he falls, his feet a bloody mess from the ice, is a particularly powerful one.
but the true star of the film is the snapshot of inuit life: the building of igloos, the hunting of caribou, the cold, harsh conditions, and the harsh lifestyle that they live, but which contains its own moral code. reportedly, none of the actors are actors, but rather real inuit, and i often wondered if the blue tattoos across the women's faces were indeed real. either way, the end result is a fascinating, complex, and totally unjudgemental portray of the inuits, and the conditions they once lived in. you can literally hear the constant crack of ice beneath the actors feet, feel the cold breath that continually pours from their throats, and taste the raw meat that they eat.
this portrayal makes the film pass quickly. it doesn't feel like a three hours, more like two, and the viewer gets caught up in some of the scenes totally, such as atanarjuat's run across the ice, his seduction at the hands of oki's sister, and more. but there are times when the film is fragmented and confusing, and it stops me from saying that this is a good film in the terms of pacing and narrative. but some films are not about that, and what atanarjuat, the fast runner brings with it is more than enough to make up for these problems.