I have seen Icelandic director Hlynur Pálmason’s epic masterpiece “Godland” twice in the last twenty-four hours, and its images still haunt me.
Set in the latter part of the 19th century, the film follows the character of Lucas, a young clergyman played by Elliott Crosset Hove. His bishop in Denmark has assigned him to travel to a pioneer community in Iceland to oversee the construction of a church and establish himself as the parish priest. Despite facing numerous challenges, Lucas embarks on a difficult journey by sea and overland with horses. He carries a heavy cross as part of his luggage throughout the journey.
Pálmason’s directorial genius and that of his masterful cinematographer (Maria von Hausswolff), plus a haunting choral score by Alex Zhang Hungtai, brings back memories of such classic “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” 1colonial tragedies as
Peter Weir’s “ Picnic at Hanging Rock” (1975)
Werner Herzog’s “ Aguire, the Wrath of God (1977)
Bruce Beresford’s “Black Robe” (1991)
Lisandro Alonso’s “Jauja,” (2014)
Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis’ “The Tale of King Crab” (2021)
but with a Bressonian aesthetic – most of the supporting cast consists of non-professional actors who constantly interact with their Icelandic horses. These beautiful beasts work from dawn to dusk and, in their drudgery, radiate nobility. And then there is the beautiful dog who, although not an actual character like Snoop/Messi in “Anatomy of a Fall,” is an essential part of the priest’s story and journey.
The horror of the Danish master Carl Theodore Dreyer is evident throughout the movie. Death or a horrific injury always awaits around the next mountain in these magnificent landscapes.
Lucas carries a heavy tripod throughout his journey. The tripod contains a camera representing his desire to document Iceland’s people and culture. During his journey, he faces immense hardship and physical pain, which push him to the brink of madness. Amidst these challenges, he forms a complicated and potentially romantic connection with his translator, portrayed by Hilmar Gudjónsson, who, in one amazing scene, sings lustily to a waterfall! However, this friendship, or perhaps something more, remains unfulfilled. And then nature strikes, and the friendship can be no more.
From this moment until the film’s end, Lucas’s life is dominated by his guide Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurdsson in a magnificent performance), who is contemptuous of the pampered Danish priest. Ragnar only speaks Icelandic (spoiler alert: we eventually discover this is not true!), while Lucas only speaks Danish. This Danish/Icelandic dichotomy is a constant theme throughout the film, down to the casting of the female leads (Vic Carmen Sonne as Anna is Danish, while Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir as Ida is Icelandic).
Lucas, the priest, is not kind, and as the journey proceeds and his mental status changes, we begin to see the selfishness and the evil lurking inside of him. At one point, he is left on the ground, on the verge of death, prompting Palmason and von Hausswolff to do one of their astonishing 360-degree camera turns, which they do at intervals throughout the film. They begin and end with Lucas’s emaciated body, and as he lies there, they spice in “Koyaaniskatsi“- like the most astonishing volcanic eruption – “nature raw in tooth and claw.“2
Lucas survives and is taken in by Carl (Jacob Lohmann, superb), a farmer of comfortable means, and his daughters, Anna and Ida. There is a romantic connection with Anna, but it is with Ida that Lucas is most relaxed, and you feel that maybe, just maybe, in a different time and place, this person could have been the real Lucas. The real Lucas before the damage was done.
ICELAND’S ENTRY FOR BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM AT THIS YEAR’S OSCARS.