“Godland” Review

Godland [2022] – ★★★★

To get back up to the shining world from there/My guide and I went into that hidden tunnel,/And Following its path we took no care/To rest, but climbed: he first, then I-so far/, through a round aperture I saw appear/Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears/, Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars.” Godland by Icelandic director Hlynur Pálmason has nothing to do with Dante, but the film’s poetic sensitivity and its spiritual quest fit well these lines from The Divine Comedy by the great Italian poet. The film itself, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival 2022, is a thematic follow-up to Pálmason’s A White, White Day (2019) and is set in the 19th century, telling of a Danish priest named Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove) who travels to remote Iceland to establish a parish church there. A difficult journey, language barrier and harsh climate are just some of the challenges for Lucas to overcome to build the house of God in so remote a region. As Lucas’s journey progresses, his incompetence in dealing with his new environment and its people become more and more evident. Pálmason produced an odd story that bypasses opportunities to explore existential or religious themes in some depth, but his film’s meditative nature and austere presentation still leave a positive impression, as the camera captures the sheer beauty of Icelandic landscape whenever it can.

The film wastes no time in portraying the sheer arduousness of Lucas’s journey from Denmark to Iceland where a church is to be built. Impassable streams, hints of volcanic eruption and steep cliffs are just some of the dangers, and when Lucas finally arrives to the place of his destination, he meets the church’s patron Carl (Jacob Hauberg Lohmann) who lives with his two daughters: tomboy Ida (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir) and older, still unmarried Anna (Vic Carmen Sonne). Lucas may be trying to adapt to the country and its people, as his superior in Denmark instructed him, but the effect of the new land and its people may be proving too much on the impressionable priest. There is an influence of Bergman (Fårö Document), Bresson (Diary of a Country Priest) and Herzog (Aguirre, the Wrath of God) felt in Pálmason’s story and aesthetics-minded direction, but the echoes of Dreyer (Ordet) and Tarkovsky (Andrei Rublev) are also noticeable, especially in establishing the spiritual tone of the film, and its emphasis on the nature’s relationship to men. Alonso’s Jauja (2014) and Martel’s Zama (2017) are also the films that come to mind as Godland unhurriedly explores Luca’s journey, and, increasingly, his strained relationship with his earthy guide Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurðsson), imbuing the narrative with strange tales of premonition-filled dreams and symbolism, while also hitting at madness rampant in some remote regions.

The picture of a man in a cassock kneeling in the background of inhospitable nature or rehearsing Icelandic words while shivering on a boat is hard to shake off, and Godland is marked by such and other powerfully contrasting images. Lucas’s modern outlook, academic manner and spiritual considerations (he came to Iceland with his photographic equipment, books and a cross) contrasts with the rough, primordial environment and the natives’ hands-on, “physical” approach to life. Thus, the intellectual world collides with the natural, and, as we witness men dissecting an animal, our priest is off to find “a picture” (a good place for a photograph). Everyone seems to be in tune with their environment, save for Lucas, who, with his unruly horse, sticks out like a sore thumb. Equally the horse, normally a symbol of strength and passion in film, which should also stem from the main character, is symbolically overthrown again and again in the story, underlying Lucas’s sheer professional and moral impotence in his new place, as well as “academic” religion being ill-suited to that wild beauty, which is rural Iceland.

Lucas’s journey to Iceland was no plain sailing, and, likewise, Pálmason’s script does not always hit the right notes in terms of its believability. The pivotal events in the film, whether near a water stream or near the film’s end, are nowhere as convincing as Pálmason’s direction, and such topics as the priest’s internal state of mind, religious hypocrisy and local hostility are left more or less unexplored as Pálmason chooses ambiguity over precision, a documentary look at life over character insight. “Everything is different there (in Iceland), people, weather”, says Lucas’s superior, but the audience never really sees Denmark to compare, and since Lucas never becomes a truly sympathetic character, there is no intrigue emerges when Pálmason decides to turn the tables. 

Midway along the journey of our life/I awoke to find myself in a dark wood,/For I had wandered off from the straight path”. As in this line from Dante’s Divine Comedy yet again, Godland also wanders off from its straight narrative path and loses itself more than once in dark woods of illogicality, disbelief and documentary realism, that takes precedence over the narrative drive and character insight. Even so, Hlynur Pálmason’s ambition pays off, and the emotion and conviction come not so much through the story, but through the film’s unique presentation. It is all the elements that dance around the plot that amaze, including Alex Zhang Hungtai’s music, Maria von Hausswolff’s gorgeous cinematography and of, course, Iceland itself. Given this, Godland is like an exquisite neoclassical painting: its drawn subject may not always convince and may even perplex with its metaphorical ambiguity, but the painting’s overall theme and its master’s brushstrokes still simply awe.

For other religion-themed films, check out my reviews of Schrader’s First Reformed (2018), Scorsese’s Silence (2016), and Betts’s Novitiate (2017).


3 Comments Add yours

  1. ospreyshire says:

    This looks like an intriguing film and has a unique concept. I don’t think I’ve seen an Icelandic film before, and the closest I’ve come to it was watching the Jeremy Irons documentary Trashed which features that country as one of those locations. I noticed you namedropped Zama because I wasn’t a fan of that film (more so the morality of it given the time period), but the cinematography was really good. I may give this a try. The thing is I haven’t seen too many movies recently.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for stopping by! Yes, this one has all the slowness of Zama, but it is still a curious one, and as you say if you haven’t watched Icelandic films, it will still open to you Iceland and beautiful cinematography, even if the story may leave you a bit “cold” and frustrated. I think we should expect more good things from Pálmason in future.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. ospreyshire says:

        No problem! I’ve listened to Icelandic music such as Bjork, Sigur Ros, and a bit of Of Monsters and Men, but I’m don’t know movies from that country. I’m sure it would be idyllic from the scenery I’ve seen in different videos before. Nice cold pun. Haha!

        Liked by 1 person

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