Maliglutit (Searchers) – VIFF 2016 Review


Canadian Inuk filmmaker Zacharias Kununk is still best known for his first film from 2001, the epic Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (amongst its many accolades is the 2001 Cannes Caméra d’or) and his most recent film, Maliglutit, returns to epic territory with this tale of revenge set in the 1930s in the icy arctic.

“We used to watch cowboys and indians on 16mm,” shared Kununk discussing his film at VIFF, “and so I’ve always wanted to do something like a John Ford film.” It’s no surprise then, that Maliglutit, which means “searchers”, is inspired by John Ford’s 1956 film The Searchers––which is regularly cited as the definitive American Western.

Ford’s vengeance-fuelled narrative has a Natalie Wood’s character kidnapped by the Comanche nation with only John Wayne able to get her back. Kununk’s revision has two Inuk women kidnapped by marauders, though they are of the same people. Both Ford and Kununk’s films cast an unconventional gaze upon violence and the fallout after unspeakable savagery.

There’s one haunting tableau that, to my mind, is closer to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian than to anything Ford could haunt audiences with during his era, for instance, making this audacious in its advance and it certainly makes the audience question just how “safe” we are as we watch.

Kuanana (Benjamin Kunuk) is the driven protagonist of Maliglutit, out to rescue his wife and revenge so many needless deaths aided by his dying father’s spirit helper, Kallulik the loon, he’s given a talisman and is off in relentless pursuit.

The icy vistas make for more than suitable Monument Valley substitutes, to continue the Ford correlations, and a number of classic Ford images are cleverly reclaimed by Kununk. For example, probably the most famous shot in The Searchers is the iconic framing of John Wayne through a doorway, a shot which shimmers with symbolism and promise. It’s shrewdly and astonishingly paid homage here when Kuanana enters through the hole torn through an igloo from the devils that caused all the carnage.

There are numerous and many pleasures in Maliglutit, and while the manufacture and pacing of many sequences may take some warming to for some audience members, the rewards are vast. The Inuk cast, which is comprised entirely of non actors, are impressive and compelling, and it’s also a cache to hear them speaking their native tongue.

The haunting soundtrack by Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq is incredible, adding an often eerie urgency to the tale, and on occasion it reaches a fever pitch intensity that almost belongs in a horror film.

An emotionally arduous journey with fierce twists and an unrelenting sense of urgency up until the final, hard fought frame, Maliglutit is a showpiece from one of Canada’s most gifted filmmakers. There’s so much visual grandeur and muscular poetry from the past that I’m sure John Ford would have loved this film, too.

Taste of Cinema Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.