In Icelandic writer-director Hlynur Pálmason’s Godland, man’s ambitions, even in relation to matters as seemingly pure as faith and spirituality, are revealed to be fragile, small, helpless against the omnipotent forces of an unforgiving natural world. Those themes suggest a film of brooding portentousness, and this transfixing drama is certainly austere. But there’s also a marvelously odd vein of sneaky humor running through it, along with an unpredictability that keeps you glued. In terms of scope, it recalls Martin Scorsese’s Silence, while its taunting questions about the limits of piety call to mind John Michael McDonagh’s criminally underseen Calvary.
No 2½ hour drama about a Lutheran priest’s physical, spiritual, moral and metaphysical journey from Denmark to a far-flung corner of colonial Iceland in the late 19th century is ever going to be an easy sell. But this is a highly original work that goes beyond its theological aspects to explore more universal questions of mankind and our evanescent place in the world. Even its images of death hit differently, notably in some stunning time-lapse sequences that show flesh and bone being absorbed into the landscape. Godland is many things, not least of them a contemplative correlative to the Viking bloodbath of The Northman.
The Bottom Line
A work of grim majesty that exerts a powerful hold.
The film was inspired by seven wet-plate photographs taken by a Danish priest in the late 1800s that are the first known images captured of one of Iceland’s more remote coastal regions. Cinematographer Maria von Hausswolffs takes that historical source as her visual cue, shooting in the boxy 1.33:1 Academy ratio with the hard edges and rounded off corners of old photos.
Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove) is a young priest sent from Denmark to oversee the building of a church and establish a parish in rural Iceland. The bishop (Waage Sandø) preparing him for the arduous cross-country trek he will take after his ship makes land advises Lucas to pay heed to the local guides, who are able to read the rivers and floes and glaciers he will need to pass. While the senior cleric assures him his journey will not take him near the volcano, he colorfully describes its stench: “Like the Earth has shat its pants.”
There’s fear in Lucas’ unblinking gaze. But beneath his outer asceticism, there also appears to be a note of arrogance, of the proudly intrepid colonialist setting off to bring God to the primitive subjects of Danish rule. During the rough sea crossing, Lucas makes a half-hearted attempt to learn some rudimentary Icelandic from the interpreter (Hilmar Guðjónsson) assigned to travel with him — at least making a start on the countless different words for rain. But seasickness cuts the lesson short and his willingness to make any linguistic effort seems to end right there.
Nor is he much encouraged after their arrival by the indifferent welcome of the head guide, Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurðsson), a rugged older man of the land who snorts his dismissal of the “Danish devil” as he prepares the priest’s horse and others to be ridden by the small party. That involves loading up Lucas’ bulky camera equipment, with its wooden easels, developing fluids and trays, as well as a large wooden cross to adorn the new church, which needs to be built before the harsh winter sets in.
An ominous shot of an earthworm feasting on a large pile of fresh horse manure suggests trouble ahead. Likewise, distant glimpses of the volcano, its fiery glow piercing white fog and clouds.
The simmering hostility between Lucas and Ragnar, two polar opposites, builds almost symphonically throughout the film, fueled by the priest continuing to regard the Icelander as a vulgar brute, even showing impatience with his genuinely curious questions about what it takes to become a man of God. Ragnar, with his bracing daily morning routine of shirtless exercise, seems connected to the earth and the elements in a way Lucas will never understand. The Icelander tells folkloric stories and sings poems as they travel, which seem to further stoke the priest’s indignation.
Both the psychological and the physical rigors of the expedition are magnified in Alex Zhang Hungtai’s other-worldly score, its ambient sounds and dissonant horns evoking everything from howling winds to whale calls.
A tragedy ensues directly from Lucas’ stubborn refusal to listen to Ragnar during a river crossing, but still the priest shows few outward signs of being humbled. As they climb higher into the mountains, the weather becomes more severe. “It’s getting rather cold,” says one of the party with droll understatement as they sit by a campfire surrounded by snow and wrapped in a chill you can practically feel in your bones. Isolated and uncommunicative, Lucas grows feebler, losing stamina and praying to God to deliver him from the unconquerable place. He collapses and seems closer to death than life, but he survives, albeit a broken man.
Around the midway point Pálmason deftly shifts the tone to imply that the worst is behind Lucas. He wakes up after an unspecified period of unconsciousness at their destination, in the home of a hardy Danish widower, Carl (Jacob Hauberg Lohmann), and his two daughters, the marriageable Anna (Vic Carmen Sonne) and her precocious younger sister, full of questions, Ida (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir). During his first dinner with them, Lucas sits in bug-eyed silence, seemingly stunned to be alive; he barely reacts even when Carl, with a malicious glint, informs him that they could have sailed there, rather than making the punishing journey by land.
Construction on the church is well underway, but Lucas refuses to perform a wedding ceremony for nearby farmers in a half-finished house of worship, though he does participate in the festivities. Meanwhile, speculation grows among the locals, Ida included, as to whether Lucas will wed Anna, even if Carl scoffs at the idea of her marrying a priest.
The drama’s thunderous final stretch begins when Ragnar approaches Lucas while he’s photographing the coastline and asks the priest to take his picture, as he has for Carl, Anna, Ida and others. Lucas’ mean-spirited refusal is startling, even more so when the Icelander launches into a confessional litany of his sins, each of them punctuated with the refrain, “Pray for me.” What follows reveals how deep the battle of wills has been etched into the two men’s souls, with conflict embedded even in their lack of a common language, but only Ragnar seems capable of humility.
That shattering scene is followed by one that’s even more unsettling as Lucas commences his first service in the now completed church, and nature itself seems to intervene, deeming him unfit to preach the word of God. The film suggests the deluded single-mindedness of many missionaries in foreign lands, bringing with them not holiness but violence and spiritual unrest. All that plays out here in unexpected ways, like a stark bulletin from another time.
Pálmason’s control over this challenging material never falters throughout the film’s epic length, deftly dropping in moments of surprising lightness to alleviate the dark.
This applies also to the excellent cast. Crosset Hove (the lead in Pálmason’s debut feature, Winter Brothers) makes the priest’s face a mask of perturbed intensity that struggles to hide his worsening imbalance. Sigurðsson’s bear-like strength doesn’t exclude aching human vulnerability, as Ragnar proves increasingly fearful of God. Sonne has warm moments as Anna, yearning to escape the place where nothing grows and return to Denmark. And Hlynsdóttir (the director’s own daughter, like Sigurðsson seen in his second feature, A White, White Day) makes Ida’s cheeky curiosity and irreverence seem tapped into Lucas’ own thorny conscience.
Considering that photography was the inspiration for Godland, it’s appropriate that DP von Hausswolffs makes such arresting use of the eye of Lucas’ camera in capturing a landscape that the priest aptly describes as “terribly beautiful.” Pálmason’s previous two films have been well-received on the festival trail; this knockout drama represents a considerable leap in maturity and ambition that merits commensurate attention.