Directed by Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Madeline Piujuq Ivalu
What strikes you immediately is the limited palette taking over the screen: white blanketing an endless terrain, the beiges and browns of fur clothing, then—like a jolt to the eyes—the brilliant azure of sky and water. When folk duo Kate and Anna McGarrigle start singing "We are carbon, we are ether" over the opening titles, their anachronistic New Age sentiments reflect what our foreign eyes might assume about life here in the Arctic Circle: that it is pure and elemental in ways that free it from the weight of history. Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Madeline Piujuq Ivalu's Canadian-produced Inuktitut fiction feature Before Tomorrow may be set in 1840, but the visual extremes of its location loosen our grip on the specifics of time and place. Further marked by the present through its digital cinematography and modern-day source material (the 1975 Danish novel Før Morgendagen), this is one period film whose very existence is based on an uneasy relationship to its own temporality.
Rounding out a trilogy that began with one of this decade's cinematic marvels, Zacharias Kunuk's The Fast Runner (2001), Before Tomorrow introduces itself as ethnography, detailing the cultural practices of a people almost never seen on the big screen as it observes a carefree summer gathering between two Inuit families. The camera pulls into loving close-ups of the characters' faces, as if it were trying not to get lost in all the snow and mist. But a series of dreamlike images serves as a harbinger of the bad fortune that history would deliver. With disarming suddenness, this insular world is devastated by the arrival of white explorers, whose presence is represented only by the artifacts they leave behind and the fatal diseases they spread to the community.
Unlike The Fast Runner, whose epic length was filled with passages of humor and levity, Before Tomorrow quickly becomes an austere study of endurance, chronicling the travails of a young boy and his grandmother as they struggle to find food and avoid being attacked by hungry wolves. As they walk across the tundra, the woman drifts in and out of storytelling, providing us examples of an oral tradition whose vibrancy stands in contrast to the film's own narrative restraint. Despite the protagonists' dire circumstances, the minimal plot does little to drum up suspense around the question of how they will survive. Ultimately what anchors us in this daunting landscape is our heightened awareness of the aging matriarch's body and the humbleness of its wish to live on—not for its own sake but out of duty to another.
Opens December 2 at Film Forum