In medieval Finland, the Sami - a tribe of peaceful hunter-gatherers - struggle to survive in a frozen wasteland. Aigin (Mikkel Gaup), a teenage boy, watches in horror as his parents and little sister are brutally slain by the 'Tjuder', a rival tribe of marauding warriors. With the killers on his heels, he flees across the snowy wastes seeking shelter at another encampment. A kindly local girl named Sahve (Sara Marit Gaup) tends Aigin's wounds, but resentment stirs as it becomes apparent the Tjuder will follow him here. While Sierge (Sverre Porsanger) gathers the tribe to escape to the coast, a guilt-ridden Aigin decides to stay and fight back. His resolve and keen survival skills impress Raste (Nils Utsi), the tribe's ageing 'pathfinder' (a combination trail scout, huntsman and protector). Sensing the boy as a possible successor, he lends a hand as together they try to come up with some way to help their people survive the onslaught.
Ofelas (Pathfinder) was not only adapted from an old Sami legend but also the first feature film shot entirely in the native dialect of the tribal folk that populated portions of Finland, Norway and Sweden. Beautifully shot by cinematographer Erling Thurmann-Anderson, it is a fable that unfolds through mists of time, less concerned with historical realism than preserving the Sami culture through folklore. Norwegian writer-director Nils Gaup purposefully pares down the plot to the most primal emotions, keeping the focus on suspense and excitement with well staged ski chases and battle scenes (including a fight between tribesman and a murderous bear), off-set by swathes of mysticism and fascinating insights into Sami lore. Yet at its core the story takes pains to emphasize its themes are universal, irrespective of cultural differences.
Indeed the film opens much like a Hollywood western with a vast snowy white canvas instead of the red-orange vistas of Monument Valley. Settlers looking to lead a peaceful life are ambushed and slaughtered by savages spurring a hero to go in search of revenge, much like The Searchers (1956) or Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Or even Star Wars (1977). Although the film establishes Aigin as a both crack shot with a bow and arrow and no slouch on a set of skis, the arc of the story is not about him becoming an unstoppable badass. Instead Gaup charts Aigin's moral and spiritual growth as mentor Raste endeavours to teach that essentially no man is an island. All living things are bound together. Those that lose sight of this simple truth, such as the Tjuder and their chieftain who is fanatically devoted to self-preservation, are doomed to stumble blindly towards destruction. By comparison young Aigin stumbles through missteps and setbacks and through his own wits and innate decency grows to value the safety of his fellow tribesmen above his own, evolving into the hero they need. Steeped in a suitably otherworldly mysticism (including an implied communication between Rusty and the tribe's spirit animal: a white reindeer), the film charts the triumph of civilized values over barbarism as compassion, family and community transcend the perils of nature.
Compelling, well-paced and accessible, the film struck a chord with audiences worldwide and was nominated for an Academy Award. Twenty years later Hollywood director Marcus Nispel inexplicably remade Pathfinder as a comic book styled, ultra-gory, Vikings vs. Native Americans action flick that flopped at the box office. Beaten by the not dissimilar 300. Having established himself as a notable talent, Nils Gaup went on to make the Disney adventure Shipwrecked (1990) and enjoy his biggest domestic box-office hit with the darkly comic thriller Hodet over vannet (1993), later remade as the Cameron Diaz vehicle Head Above Water (1996). While Gaup's Hollywood career never quite got off the ground - North Star (1994), an action film produced by and starring Christopher Lambert was a flop and he pulled out of directing Kevin Costner in infamous sci-fi epic Waterworld (1995) over spiraling costs - he remains a vital force in Norwegian cinema. Recent works include another Sami based historical yarn The Kautokeino Rebellion (2008), charming family fantasy Journey to the Christmas Star (2012) and The Last King (2016), a grandiose epic about Norway's civil war in the Thirteenth Century.