Nils Gaup, the Laplander who directed "Pathfinder," brings the snowfields and mountain wastes, the ancestral lands of his kin, to icy life in this glittering and desolate poem to a people. Based on a legend handed down and down for a thousand years, Gaup's hypnotic first film is mythic realism, a chivalric fairy tale that sets a lone boy with his poor bow against a glacial evil.

The Tchudes, a ruthless race of warriors, melt like shadows into the woods as a fur-bundled child goes searching for her lost dog -- life goes on as usual. But this is a shivery, bucolic prelude to the cold-blooded massacre of the hero's family. Young Aigin (Mikkel Gaup), who will come of age herein, returns from a hunting trip to find the Tchudes pillaging the camp and disposing of his families' bodies. Narrowly escaping but wounded, the 16-year-old arrives at a nearby encampment, where he is healed by the shaman Raste (Nils Utsi) and nursed by a local beauty.

Though Aigin urges his new friends to stand and fight the Tchudes, the nonviolent Laplanders flee in their reindeer-pulled sleds to the safety of the Arctic coast. Hoping to avenge his family, Aigin stubbornly stays behind, is captured by the intruders, then coerced into leading them over the treacherous mountains to the main Lapp settlement. It seems that Aigin is about to betray his friends, but as Raste has foreseen, the boy is a born leader.

The Tchudes' chief has the look of Darth Vader, and there is the dark side of the force about him, spooky in the northern lights. Raste, however, recognizes the enemy for what he is. "Remember," he tells Aigin, "we are but parts of the whole, the infinite brotherhood. The Tchudes have forgotten this."

A 1988 Oscar contender, "Pathfinder" is not only the first Lapp film so honored, but the first feature in the Lapp language, spoken by only 40,000 people. A native cast -- except for the Tchudes, who are played by Norwegians -- lends a ruddy, ruggedly attractive authenticity to this suspenseful adventure, which Gaup hopes will preserve the lore of his people. Hunters and herders, they are animists and omen readers in league with their hostile environment. And that is no easy thing.