Sent on a mission to establish a parish in a remote Icelandic settlement, Danish priest Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove) must brave harsh conditions, strange customs and existential dread in Hlynur Pálmason’s 19th century Nordic epic. Austere, emotionally taciturn and with shades of Bergman, Dreyer and Jan Troell’s The New Land about it, Godland is the Icelandic director’s most accomplished work to date.
It has become an arch cliché to describe any film involving long journeys, harsh landscapes and harsher characters as ‘Westerns’, especially when they are not in fact set in the American West, though in fairness, the ‘West’ of the cinematic Westerns has arguably as much to do with the real American West as, say, the Australian outback of The Proposition. The ‘West’ of the Western cinematic form is an imagined place of landscape, prospect and conquest, violence and masculinity, the sublime and spectacle, and in that sense Godland undoubtedly fits the bill.
Where conventional Westerns are about the triumph of the individual over the landscape, Godland posits the opposite. Lucas’ mission ostensibly is to bring the word of God to the small Icelandic village, but his hopeless ill-preparation precedes his arrogance and his ego. An opening title card informs us that the film was inspired by a series of photographs taken along the Icelandic coast, and so this provides us with Lucas’ tragic flaw. He is imagined as the photographer: instead of easily sailing to the village, he elects to travel across country by horse to document the land with the new technology of the camera.
Warned of the arduousness of his task, his desire to contain the land through the lens of the camera reveals a profound arrogance and a deep disrespect for the land and its conditions. Through his photography, he expects to able to control the land and to control it. When it fails to yield to his pride, it breaks him. At one point, Lucas tells his guide, Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurðsson), that to be a man of God one must give themselves over entirely, yet every action he takes reveals that his sense of self always takes primacy.
The film’s 1.33:1 aspect ratio offers a wonderful visual irony to its depiction of the sublime, mirroring the frame of Lucas’ camera, even down to it rounded-off corners. Cinematographer Maria von Hauswolff depicts the landscape’s utter indifference to Lucas’ vainglorious quest with montage sequences that depict the passing of seasons and the cycles of death, decay and renewal that are oblivious to Lucas’ egoistic journey. Lucas believes he is on an epic quest to bring God to the godless: coldly documenting everything through the lens of his camera, if he would only stop to look perhaps he would see the divine sublimity that already surrounds them.
The ultimate irony is in the title that frames the film, repeated four times, twice in Danish and twice in Icelandic. As the ice and wind and rain blast flesh from bones and bleach them white, God’s presence is hard to detect for a man obsessed with framing and containing it. Much is made of the construction of a church for the unnamed settlement, and indeed the Church itself becomes a kind of frame, making a mockery of God’s sublime against the tiny inconsequence of man. If God does reside in this land it does not appear that they are in need of a house, much less a minister to speak for them.