Godland arrives in cinemas nationwide on December 1st.
Monumental, barren landscapes, the quest to find a silent, seemingly unfeeling God only to find that hell is other people: all are powerful yet almost cliche concepts in European cinema. These concepts were all fundamental to the careers of Bergman and Béla Tarr, the two great miserabilists of European despair. So with the Danish/Icelandic feature Godland offering a modern take on these same tropes and themes, what does director Hlynur Pálmason bring to the conversation?
Partly based on early Icelandic photography, Danish priest Lucas travels to a remote part of Iceland to build a church while looking to photograph the country and people he encounters along the way. Lucas is quickly established as a classic religious hypocrite who reveres the suffering of his lord and saviour yet can suffer few indignities or hardships himself.
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Amid the hardened farmers, fishermen and villagers he encounters along the way, his weak resolve and uncaring rudeness make for a difficult protagonist. However, the performance of Elliott Crosset Hove rounds Lucas into an understandable central figure. His clash with Ragnar (a powerfully understated Ingvar Sigurdsson) is the most compelling through-line of Godland, a clash of personalities that sizzles with its slow build towards a brutal conclusion.
Hlynur Pálmason’s direction is in no hurry to reach such conclusions: Godland has the feeling of embarking on a vast journey, part purposeful, part meandering but always mesmerising. Lucas, burdened by his massive camera apparatus, always seems to be searching for a perfect image, and Godland finds a new perfect shot every minute. Cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff creates a truly epic scale to the film, using the vastness to swallow the small moments of intimacy as Lucas and Ragnar interact with the small Icelandic community they inhabit.
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It’s in this last segment of the film, following the great journey, that Godland changes pace entirely. As Lucas attempts to connect to his rugged and dubious parish, his insecurities explode. The awkward hints of romance with a local farmer’s daughter betray the insidious truth that Lucas has become as cold and unfeeling as his new home. If his rival Ragnar is a man of the earth, then Lucas is salted earth, incapable of growing any true affections, silently contemptuous of his newfound flock.
Godland’s vision of misery will not be to everyone’s tastes, but those who undergo the pilgrimage will be rewarded with a stark adventure that balances enormous scale with emotional precision. Just don’t embark expecting guffaws or feelgood sentiment: this tale is as cold and harsh as the rock underfoot.
Godland’s vision of misery will not be to everyone’s tastes, but those who undergo the pilgrimage will be rewarded with a stark adventure that balances enormous scale with emotional precision. Don’t expect guffaws or feelgood sentiment: this tale is as cold and harsh as the rock underfoot.