Godland follows a priest’s misguided mission in 19th century Iceland.
If ever a film ironically invoked its title, Icelandic director Hlynur Pálmason’s Godland certainly does. Set in the late nineteenth century, young, initially idyllic Danish priest Lucas travels across Iceland’s gorgeous, remote, forbidding landscapes, intent on building a church, establishing a Christian community around it, and, incidentally, documenting it all with photographs taken on his large-format camera.
Encumbered physically by his equipment and psychologically by his inflexible, emotionally stunted approach, his faith transforms and succumbs to a hostile geographic and societal environment. A parable, Godland has its roots in historic details. At this year’s Telluride Film Festival discussion, director Pálmason explained that he wrote the script over two years, prompted by discovering seven photoplates in 2013. The missionary priest in them resembled Elliott Crosser Hove whom Pálmason cast as the self-righteous Lucas.
Pálmason began forays into Iceland, filming in isolated areas, some of that footage making its way into the finished film. Among those scenes is one of the most striking: the one-year time lapse decomposition of his father’s horse discovered dead on a neighbor’s land. More to the point, increasing familiarity with Iceland led what Pálmason described as “landscape as a character witness,” with Maria von Hausswolff’s exquisite cinematography capturing this hostile world. It rained for two weeks during initial production, testing everyone’s stamina.
A lover of physical films, especially Buster Keaton’s, Pálmason foregrounds terrifying confrontations, including Lucas’ interactions with local resident Ragner and with Carl who dominates two daughters, Anna (possibly Lucas’ wife-to-be) and Ida. Tension simmers from the colonial legacy, language barriers, personality clashes, and Lucas’ painstaking daguerreotype photo procedures. In every way, the gulf between Lucas and this community informs and poisons religious intent.
Several appealing songs punctuate the drama, storytelling in their own right. The Danish and Icelandic actors deliver superb performances for a slow moving, spellbinding two and a third hours. A film to settle into that rewards the effort with unexpected developments, Godland is in Icelandic and Danish with English subtitles.