A little girl searches for her lost dog. The landscape is sheeted with snow and ice. Bundled in thick furs, the child approaches a stand of birch trees. She lifts her eyes and spies a discordant note: in the whiteness of the snow, among the white trees, is a band of men draped in filthy black skins. The girl is frozen in terror. A crossbow decorated with the grinning skull of a small animal is aimed, the trigger released, and—
It is Lappland, approximately 1000 CE.
The Pathfinder (1987) is a tale of utter simplicity, but endowed with mythic power.
Based on an ancient Sami legend and the first film shot in the Sami language, The Pathfinder tells the tale of Aigin, a young hunter who returns home to find his family slaughtered by the Tjuder, merciless bandits who look like a cross between jihadists and ninja assassins.
Aigin flees to another village where he tries to rally the peaceful hunter gatherers to make a stand against the genocidal Tjuder.
It’s a classic set-up with the reluctant hero trying to gain support against a blood-thirsty conquerer who cannot be appeased, whose only goal is murder and pillage. The Tjuder are never seen eating, tending fires or hunting for food. There are no women in their band and they don’t even bother to rape. They are, quite simply, creatures who have climbed from the bowels of hell, evil incarnate.
Rarely has film presented such nightmarish antagonists. Compared to the Tjuder, the bandits in Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, are unruly frat boys.
Set in a pre-Christian culture, the film lovingly documents a world ruled by spirits and ghostly reindeer. After a Shaman kills a ferocious bear, the villagers will only gaze at their Shaman through a protective amulet or risk the immolation of their souls.
As the medieval Sami enacted their pagan rituals, Seraphic Secret felt right at home, identifying with the characters, their reliance on religious ritual, community, and their feelings of terror and awe before the inexplicable universe and the evil that threatens their very existence.
At one point in the film Aigin poses the ultimate question to the Shaman: Why are the Tjuder bent on annihilating the Sami?
Answers the wise Shaman, “Such is our fate.”
What a lovely piece of dialogue. No grand speeches, no philosophical reflections on the nature of good and evil.
The Shaman is telling Aigin that evil is incomprehensible. Thus, all that’s left for good men is to stand and fight—to the death if necessary.
As I said, last week, in my review of the silent masterpiece Laila (1929) an epic set in the frozen tundra of Lappland, I’m a sucker for such imagery: barren and frozen landscapes, characters wrapped in layers of thick and luxurious furs, amazing headwear that is, I kid you not, Vogue-worthy, a sturdy people at one with their environment but acutely aware of the mortal danger that threatens every movement.
Seraphic Secret has, over the years, repeatedly emphasized that every great movie is, essentially a love story. Central to the The Pathfinder, is Aigin’s romance with Sahve, Sara Marit Gaup, a lovely village girl with a serene disposition that masks an iron faith in Aigin’s heroic mission.
The Pathfinder feels like an American movie, a Budd Boetticher Western, lean and hard-bitten, but focused on protecting and preserving family and community.
But first and foremost, the emphasis is on one moral man refusing to surrender to the forces of evil, a lesson that is, too often, forgotten by modern man.
A truly wonderful film, highly recommended.
The Pathfinder on DVD is only available on the non-USA format. But hey, watch it on your computer, it’s that good.