Hlynur Pálmason’s third feature, Godland, represents a massive leap in scale for the Icelandic director. Like his sophomore feature A White, White Day (2019), the film observes a taciturn lead as he is battered by myriad external forces amid an unforgiving landscape. But Pálmason has widened his canvas considerably, choosing to enfold this ostensible character study into the colonialist history of Denmark’s rule over Iceland, following a young Danish priest, Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove), as he is sent over by the Church to establish a parish. This time around, the director has also given his film an intriguing historical hook: onscreen text informs us that Godland was inspired by seven wet plate photographs taken by a Danish priest, the very first to document Iceland’s southeast coast. Thus the film’s first hour, which follows the priest’s arduous Icelandic passage in the company of a hostile guide, Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurðsson, the lead of A White, White Day), imagines the conditions in which the plates were taken. This allows for a heightened contrast between the journey’s physical strain, which nearly kills Lucas, and the observational detachment of his eye as a photographer — as when the slaughter of a lamb is immediately followed by him going off “to find a picture.” The historical background also motivates the look of the film, whose 35mm footage maintains an unprocessed appearance (rough, rounded corners, specks of dust, and the like) closer to the images a 19th-century naturalist might have produced. For good measure, Godland also includes not one but two title cards (the first in Danish, the second in Icelandic) and a central character dynamic reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007).
How one responds to that latter comparison is a decent indicator of how one will take to Godland, since Pálmason has something of Anderson’s frustratingly opaque approach to character and psychology. In the film’s second half, which follows Lucas’ uneasy acclimation to the village he is to serve, Pálmason creates a veil of mystery around Lucas and Ragnar, whose growing enmity toward each other develops through a number of significant narrative turns. But he often neglects to position the audience in relation to this mystery, which renders his characters into mere chess pieces and the plot developments merely sensational. (Needless to say, the exploration of colonial history remains little more than a thematic signpost.) Still, Pálmason at least maintains a focus on delivering stark, elemental imagery: Godland often cuts away to natural detail for its own sake, includes numerous depictions of animal life, and, despite centering on a priest, maintains a resolute emphasis on the material over the spiritual. And the Icelandic director is in this respect consistent: the most notable flourishes in A White, White Day were likewise detached from narrative and firmly wedded to the environment. In a self-referential gesture, the time-lapse effect of that film’s opening shot, in which a landscape is filmed in a variety of weather conditions, reappears here no less than three times, clearly meant to underscore how the conflicts of human life are dwarfed by the enormities of landscape. Still, a touch of self-aggrandizement is far preferable to what Godland ultimately adds up to: a portentous journey of false mystery and thudding mechanism, a film whose aesthetic ambitions are, in the end, merely decorative.
Published as part of TIFF 2022 — Dispatch 6.