Like The Navigator, a striking film from New Zealand that was released last year, Pathfinder is a wholly extraordinary adventure that might take some effort to find. Despite an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film, this film from Norway is hardly a natural for the local multiplex. The actors are all unknowns, and the movie — shot in Lapland (the northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland) — is the first feature ever made in the Lapp language. It’s easy to imagine the Hollywood studio bosses tripping over themselves to turn this one down.
Any misgivings should vanish with the opening scene. Nils Gaup, a former actor making his debut as a director, shows a startling command of the medium. The less-impressive screenplay, also by Gaup, is based on a thousand-year-old Lapp legend that Gaup recalls hearing from his grandfather. The sixteen-year-old Aigin, played by newcomer Mikkel Gaup (no direct relation to Nils), returns home from a hunting trip to see his parents and baby sister slaughtered by Tchude raiders, masked bandits from northern Russia and Finland who pillaged Lapp settlements. The director’s decision not to subtitle the Tchude language (as indecipherable to the Lapps as it is to us) adds to the terror.
Escaping the Tchudes, Aigin takes refuge in a small Lapp camp and tries to persuade the inhabitants to take a stand against the enemy. Only three agree to help, and they are soon killed. When the Tchudes start torturing Raste (Nils Utsi), the camp’s noaidi, or holy man, Aigin offers to lead the bandits to the main Lapp settlement in exchange for Raste’s life. Aigin must now betray his people to the Tchudes or come up with a new plan.
The plot resembles a High Noon on ice, and Raste’s rant on brotherhood (“We are all parts of the whole”) sounds like he upchucked the more indigestible parts of The Grapes of Wrath. But director Gaup trusts the mythic power of the tale, and he charges the visuals — from a fullscale bear hunt to a black boot in the snow — with a vivid, poetic immediacy. Pathfinder exerts a hypnotic hold.