Written and directed by Hlynur Pálmason
The indomitable and fearsome splendor of Iceland provides the backdrop for human folly in Hlynur Pálmason’s Godland, a love letter of sorts to his parents and to his native country.
I say “of sorts” since there’ll be plenty who might not be enamored with Iceland’s formidable nature, particularly the effect it can have on a person’s body and psyche as it toils against an uncaring country. It’s tough, even a person who believes a higher power is on their side. That person is Lucas, a priest sent to the island from Denmark with a mission to build a church and bring the good word of god to what, in Lucas’ eyes, is a godless place.
It’s the end of the 19th century and getting places isn’t straightforward. Lucas decides to make it even more arduous, opting to no sail to his destination and instead trek across the land guided by a handful of staunch natives. He says it’s for him to acquaint himself with the land and its people. He intends to capture said land and its people too, carrying a camera on his back, which, in its nascent technological stage, is quite the cross to bear. Heavy, bulky, awkward, he struggles to just make it off the beach.
On a grand scale, Godland is a battle of greater powers. Iceland, as shown to us by Pálmason, is unforgiving and unassailable. Rocks don’t care how hard the wind blows. Pálmason adopts the square framing of Lucas’s camera, so while Lucas’ portraits are of people, Pálmason’s concerned with the land itself. As beautiful as it is, it appears grotesquely inhospitable, and to imagine all the knickknacks of modern civilization trying to impose itself on the barren lands and jagged cliffs is laughable. Pálmason’s feat in capturing the brutal splendor is stunning. Who needs god when the land is already its own greater being? More to the point in Godland, who needs Denmark, the country that has colonized the island for centuries now and imposed its language and ideas?
Within this macro framing there’s a more human struggle. Elliott Crosset Hove’s gangly physique transforms before our eyes as Lucas makes his way across the land. He becomes gaunt, his cheeks hollow and eyes sunken, his regret and anger at his fate the only thing he still holds on to.
The man leading his expedition, Ragnar,is every bit his opposite. Played with force by Ingvar Sigurðsson, Ragnar’s a survivor, solid as bedrock and without mercy. It’s as if he wasn’t born but instead simply detached himself from a cliffside one morning. He does aerobics in the morning, his naked feet squishing the frigid moss, and harvests the land’s bounty with ease. He converses with Lucas in Icelandic, aware Lucas understands very little. He technically works for Lucas, but it doesn’t feel that way
Early on, they feel representative of warring philosophies and their respective countries, but Pálmason wills it differently, aware of the conflicts that exist within us all. The slow-unfolding (unraveling, frankly) of these two men has potent rewards and lifts everything from the abstract to the personal and engaging.
Godland, like the trek that takes up most of its runtime, is not an easy journey. Pálmason’s style is not flowing and gentle, but stark and harsh, the action is sparse and mostly grounded in misery. His characters are not amicable in person or in speech. The moments that open the movie up are few, but telling. In one scene, Pálmason runs a long meandering take where he captures the entirety of the small society on the Icelandic coast, young and old, as it celebrates a wedding. The other standout is a pivotal monologue that serves as the thematic climax and fusion of the ideas he spent the past two hours building.
Godland is the rare movie where you can actually say the location is its own character, and Pálmason has captured its raw intensity. Crosset Hove’s and Sigurðsson’s dueling performances give us something to turn our minds to as the countryside proves too overwhelming to consider, and the edge they provide is the catch and reward for anyone with the patience for this volcano of a film. It lies dormant until it erupts.