Hlynur Pálmason’s breathtaking portrait of blind faith and evangelism in late 19th-century Iceland is a film of sturdy and stunning beauty.
By Caspar Salmon
After the international acclaim for his second film A White, White Day (2019), Hlynur Pálmason returns with Godland, a film of extraordinary craft and power. The film’s considerable virtues, which range from breathtaking landscape photography to inhabited performances from a flawless cast, show Pálmason to be working at the height of his powers.
Drawing inspiration from late-19th century photos of Icelandic countryfolk taken in a remote outcrop of the island, Godland centres on Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove), a Danish priest and amateur photographer who has undertaken a trip across Iceland to establish a parish by the sea. To assist him in his arduous journey, Lucas enlists a Danish-Icelandic translator, various horse-boys, and a rough-edged guide, Ragnar (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson), with whom the mild-mannered preacher enters into a low-simmering feud. The film essentially contains two separate halves, of which the first is the group’s difficult procession through churning rivers and over icy mountains, while the second takes place in the tiny village where Lucas and his remaining acolytes wash up. The film’s subject matter recalls Oscar and Lucinda a little, There Will Be Blood somewhat too, for its tale of single-minded settlers driven to a species of madness. In the case of Godland (the title is bitterly ironic), the crisis comes from the dogma of faith rubbing up against the imperious lawlessness of nature.
Godland is immediately striking for the economy and delicacy of its aesthetic. Its opening tableau, in which Lucas seeks guidance for his forthcoming trip, is decorated sparsely; bleak daylight illuminates a table with a frugal dinner on it, at which an older priest cracks a boiled egg on his plate while dispensing advice.
Over and over, Pálmason performs the minor miracle of making these sorts of everyday occurrence seem breathtakingly beautiful: in gorgeously tinctured, boxy images that mimic early photography, the director transfigures reality. A little fly settling on Lucas’s eyelashes as he sleeps; drops of rain darkening a grey rock; the violet marbling of a riverside ridge; a posy in a small jug on a window ledge: these things and many more appear as so many elements of utter wonder in the film, because of Pálmason’s gift for composition, his way with colour and the poise of his edit, holding a picture long enough to draw us in. Two remarkable 360° shots stand out among a set of scenes of impeccable control: in one, Lucas lies wounded and vulnerable in a valley, while we observe the slow progress of nature, the shifting of evening light all around him; in the other, Pálmason paints a whole community on a festive day, to the tune of an accordion piece played by Ragnar. More miracles.
The film is suffused with a sturdy, Protestant beauty: so too is the good, bony face of Elliott Crosset Hove, who becomes gaunt and haunted as the story progresses. Eventually, we become hip to the terrible crisis engulfing the young man, after the shocking death of a comrade while travelling, and his own sickness on the journey. Hove beautifully conveys, in the stiff figure of this pallid man of faith, Lucas’s self-centred doggedness, and his mounting uncertainty about the world he finds himself in. In a remarkable scene in the second half of the movie, in which the priest is invited to take part in the local custom of men wrestling on a wedding day, we see this slight man’s tenacious determination win out over his diffidence, figuring his metamorphosis into a very different sort of creature than the man who set out on his journey. In the second part of the film, its psychological intensity gains in heat. For all the film’s delicacy, Pálmason manages to pull off some violent shocks, including three surprising deaths, all the more brutal for the benign simplicity of their backdrop.
Godland is singular in that it functions equally powerfully as a lacerating portrait of masculinity, a deeply considered essay on nationalism and the clash of cultures, or a travelogue that drinks in the godless wonder of Iceland’s stark beauty. It ends with a heart-stopping series of fixed shots, drenched with ever-changing colours, filled with the tactile texture of rock formations and brushy grass, while a choir extols the virtues of Denmark: here, the land changes every day, and the question of human belonging in this world seems a very folly.
Source: Godland review: a priest’s mad mission across Iceland