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WITHIN THE first 10 minutes of "Pathfinder," a wandering dog is shot dead with an arrow from a crossbow wielded by a black-robed figure who looks like a ninja warrior displaced to the frozen tundra of Lappland.

Then the little girl looking for her lost pup meets the same fate. Then her father, then her mother -- all methodically killed by a band of ruthless invaders. Slowly each body is lowered, head down, through a hole in the ice. Behind a hill the horrified 16-year-old son of the family watches. He runs, takes an arrow in the arm, and escapes only by virtue of his single remaining ski.

Such simply conceived scenes give this film, the first effort by Norwegian director Nils Gaup, an elemental power. Any movie that starts out having the family dog shot down, followed by its sweet-faced owner, can surely be accused of playing loosely with the emotions. But despite some shameless heart-tugging and melodrama, the film is a prize of a kind seldom seen in a land shadowed by the extravagant mayhem routinely dished out by Hollywood.

This may seem to many a simplistic film, technically naive and psychologically obvious. But those seeming faults are its strength: It gets back to basics -- as a story and as a film.

Gaup, a Lapp himself, set out to do this ancient legend and do it in Lapp language, a language incomprehensible even to most Norwegians. In his quest for authenticity, Gaup also insisted on filming on location, confronting 45-below-zero temperatures and four-hour days.

O The result is something of an old-fashioned boys' adventure film. Here, evil is evil and good is good. Heroism, at first a desperate necessity, results in victory over great odds. Technical sophistication -- and the crossbow was that, 1,000 years ago -- is no match for the ingenuity and courage of a youthful hero.

Today, in one of the ironies wrought by our media civilization, such "boys' adventures" can be appreciated only by adults. The 12-year-old who watched the film with me told me in no uncertain terms that kids wouldn't go for this -- not enough gore by lauded "RoboCop" standards.

So, for adults tired of the splattered-skull school of filmmaking, "Pathfinder" may serve as a refreshing antidote. Here is the human social condition stripped to the bone. The non-violent Lapplanders, loving and vulnerable in their superstitious simplicity, are pitted against a vicious tribe that has "lost the way of oneness," as the Lapps' spiritual leader phrased it.

Throughout the film, Aigin, the young hero, is beset by reticent and confused adults who haven't the simplest political system setup to make decisions in a time of crisis. So they argue, lose time and invite death.

All is settled with magnificent simplicity by a young hero who manages to see beyond the immediate threat. Corny? Yes. But beautifully so.


Rating:*** 1/2
A recounting of a 1,000-year-old Lapp legend about a boy who saves a settlement from a tribe of invaders.

In Lapp with English subtitles. Unrated, at the North Park Theater.

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