In the late 1800s, a young ambitious Danish priest, Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove, "Winter Brothers"), is given a mission by his elder to travel to Iceland to build a church, something which must be accomplished before winter. Lucas, a wet plate photographer, chooses to land on a remote part of the island in order to get to know the land and its people but the arduous journey almost kills him and he will always be a stranger in “Godland.”
Laura's Review: B+
Inspired by old photographs and his own relationship with Denmark and its former colony of Iceland, writer/director Hlynur Pálmason ("Winter Brothers," "A White, White Day") fashions a strange and brooding tale pitting the fear of God against nature. Shooting in a 1.33 : 1 aspect ratio which Pálmason preferred for close-ups and which mimics the priest’s photography, cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff ("A White, White Day") pans the long line of horses traversing lush yet unforgiving landscapes, a moss covered gorge looking for all the world like Mother Nature’s own Sheila-Na-Gig. Composer Alex Zhang Hungtai’s eerie horn as a perfect accompaniment to the otherworldly visuals.
Lucas has no sooner landed on an Icelandic beach than we feel his frustration as the black-robed figure struggles in the wet sand with the wooden cabinet which holds his photography equipment. His translator (Hilmar Guðjónsson) will introduce him to Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurðsson, "Everest," "The Northman"), the rugged older man who will act as guide, supply horses and some comic relief via his charmingly expressive dog. The relationship begins rockily, Ragnar warning Lucas not to ‘ruin his horse’ after witnessing the priest’s awkward handling of the animal.
Many may find the first half of “Godland,” which focuses on the journey, reminiscent of Herzog’s “Aguirre” with its procession ascending Machu Pichu, but the landscape here is more varied, long stretches of flat land punctuated by rivers, volcanoes and rocky outcroppings, and this journey takes up half of the film’s 143 minute running time. When Ragnar recommends waiting for a couple of days to cross a raging river, Lucas insists on no delay, a man lost along with one of his human-sized crucifixes. The priest will later lie in his tent, despairing to God that he is not needed here, that he cannot travel anymore nor deal with these people whose language bedevils him. The next day, he’ll slide off his horse and be delivered to his final destination unconscious.
Pálmason doesn’t show us the arrival, instead suddenly transitioning to a young brunette woman we will learn is Anna (Vic Carmen Sonne, "Winter Brothers") and her younger blonde sister Ida (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir, "A White, White Day," the filmmaker’s daughter) foraging along the seashore, Ida merrily singing a gruesome folk tale. Back at their home, Anna will prepare a bowl of nourishment, but when she descends the stairs from the kitchen, she is startled by her patient’s nudity. It is Lucas, just coming to, and his host, Anna’s father Carl (Jacob Hauberg Lohmann, "Riders of Justice"), will insist he no longer stay within his house, moving him to an outer building. As the church building begins to go up, Lucas will refuse to marry a young couple in the unfinished building, be drawn into the local wrestling challenges, be seduced by Anna and intensify his simmering relationship with Ragnar. Commandments and vows are broken and when the barking of Ragnar’s dog interrupts Lucas’s first service, nature will be his vanquisher.
Lucas’s photographs provide commentary throughout, the images enlivened through the story of their creation (Ida’s playful rebellion sitting upon a horse in every way but the traditional is particularly amusing). Pálmason employs time lapse photography to startling effect, the decomposition of a horse moving, mysterious and a foreshadowing of his protagonist’s own fate. “Godland” requires patience, but this is a film that creeps up on you and will have you turning it over in your mind for days after watching it.
Robin's Review: B+
Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove) is a young Danish priest on his first important assignment: cross the rugged Icelandic mountains and establish a new church. But, the journey proves to be bridge too far for the cleric as he comes to questions his very faith in “Godland.”
The story is based on the discovery, in Iceland, of seven old collodion wet-plate glass photographs taken in the latter half of the 19th century (an admitted fabrication). Director and writer Hlynur Palmason uses these pictures to tell Lucas’s story of faith, temptation, bigotry and loss of that faith that so inspired him.
Outlander Lucas makes the decision to trek across the forbidding and rugged Icelandic landscape to “discover” the land and the people. But, Lucas’s arrogance toward his Icelandic guides and porters causes resentment to build, Instead of discovering his new flock, he alienates them.
The story is simple, but the priest’s interactions with the locals – from head guide Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurdsson), to a father, Carl (Jacob Lohmann), and his two daughters, Anna (Vic Carmen Sonne) and Ida (Ida Mekkin Hlynsdottir) – are anything but simple. Lucas, for the first time in his cloistered life, is exposed to the other side – real life with real people. These new revelations alter his formerly rigid training as he both grows and is diminished. The question of faith reigns high in the story as we watch Lucas deal with that question.
The story is both fascinating and thought provoking, as is the look of the film, from cast, to costume to stunning cinematography – the Icelandic landscape is captured with beauty and majesty
Janus Films opened "Godland" in NY on 2/3/23. Click here for upcoming play dates.