Writer-director Hlynur Pálmason sets out in the tradition of Herzog with this visually rich tale of a priest's ill-fated Icelandic expedition
The folly of colonial expedition has long made for fertile cinematic territory. Whether it's Herzog’s excursions to the Amazon in Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, the hallucinogenic awkwardness of Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, or the whole swathe of nihilistic revisionist westerns that grew from the 1960s onwards, there’s something distinctly appealing and visually cinematic about strangers wandering through foreign territory, lost and oblivious to the power of the landscape. Godland fits fully in that tradition, adding to its mix a particular Protestant asceticism.
Key to Godland’s conceptualisation is the fact that, in this case, the difference between ruler and subject is not all that far apart, linguistically or culturally. We follow Danish priest Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove) in the late 19th century (around when Icelandic nationalism and calls for sovereignty were growing, after centuries of rule from Denmark), tasked with journeying to Iceland and helping build, consecrate, and minister a new church, guided by the taciturn and gruff Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurðsson), though the two take an instant disliking to each other, their rift driving the film’s dramatic tension.
The Danes and the Icelanders, of course, have a shared history, the language originating in the same North Germanic root, Iceland’s political development over the past millennia a mix of periods of organic growth and impositions of absolute rule. Iceland’s distance from its lords and lieges in Scandinavia means that the country’s culture and identity has emerged differently, keenly aware of its existence on the margins of Europe, and with it a distance from the mainstream of European historical developments.
This subtle difference is mined for both tragedy and comedy throughout Godland: Lucas doesn’t speak Icelandic, and makes zero effort to understand. Characters will frequently interpret for him, yet repeat sentences that (to my ears, at least) sound almost identical, as if the priest can’t fathom a different way of saying the same thing. He is quick to judge his fellow travellers for their seemingly un-Christian values, yet it’s the Icelanders who seem far better versed in that regard than he, sharing food and building communities. Perhaps it’s his realisation that he has no real place, nor purpose in this world, that causes him to lash out so pettily.
But there’s much more to Godland than a character study of a foolish priest (though Hove does a great job of building a measure of sympathy in Lucas’s utterly lost and perpetually terrified gaze). It comes as no surprise that a film set in Iceland looks great, but writer-director Hlynur Pálmason has a sharp visual eye. The film is shot in a 4:3 ratio with the edges rounded off like an old photograph, softening the image. The perpetual evenness one gets from an overcast day is frequently used to give a real sense of depth to the landscape. The grass looks earthy, the volcanic black rock unreal. If Robert Eggers’ The Northman presented Iceland as mythological and elemental, Godland presents it as a truly physical place, rich in flora and fauna, but no less ethereal to the stranger’s eye, and absolutely hostile to those unaccustomed to it.
These images are often framed in tableaux, the camera rarely moving (and on the occasions it does, always with a clear and direct purpose, like in a gorgeous 360 degree shot that gives us a full village panoply in one take). The land might often look untameable, but respect it and it will reward you, Pálmason suggests. Lucas does not, and his obliviousness leaves him incapable of appreciating the Godly beauty of the world around him. Exquisitely poetic.
Godland is released in UK cinemas on 7 April.Where to watch