Many years ago in Iceland, a box was found containing seven wet-plate photographs. These photographs were the first recorded images of the Southeast coast. Godland is inspired by these photographs.
In the late 1800s, a young snobbish Danish priest named Lucas (Elliot Crosset Hove) is given the ambitious task of building a new church. The location of this new parish is in the remote wilderness of Iceland, a place with winters so cold and winds so unforgiving that trees can’t even grow. While he has been given the deadline of building his church before winter Lucas intends to indulge in his hobby of photography. Making a long cross-country trek rather than a short sea voyage to get a better feel for the land and its people.
Immediately, the Danish Lucas faces language barriers, unable to understand his Icelandic labourers and vice versa. His guide, Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurðsson) has no time for Lucas and the feeling is mutual. The more his voyage takes him into the unforgiving Icelandic wilderness, the more Lucas loses touch with his mission, his faith, and his basic humanity. By the time construction on the church begins, Lucas may already be lost to a slow creeping madness, never to return.
Shot over the course of many years, this is a deeply personal film to visionary writer and director Hlynur Pálmason. Many of his films tend to deal with the effects the seasons have on the psyche of his characters. This film is no different with an added focus on the toll alienation and the vast brutal landscapes that can take on humans not experienced in it.
Pálmason has also clearly been influenced by methods of photography of the 19th century. This is immediately apparent as the film is shot in an aspect ratio similar to 4:3 full screen (black bars on the sides), cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff creating a thoroughly archaic scope with the entire film appearing as if we are viewing these century old wet-plate photographs in motion.
Furthermore, while many films would shoot these spectacular landscapes in widescreen, this film’s aspect ratio leads to visages being shot in more classical ways. This allows us to feel transported back 150 years to a forgotten time of Danish colonisation. The views are undeniably breathtaking and terribly beautiful. The character of Anna (Vic Carmen Sonne) later puts it an emphasis on the “terrible”.
Godland focuses more on narrative flow than on actual plot, an admirable approach which allows scenes to play out with ambiguous meaning rather than direct purpose. This said, throughout the film’s lengthy 143-minute runtime lingering meditative shots of nature or prolonged diatribes from characters can begin to feel overindulgent.
However, this isn’t always unpleasant. The film features two long slow panoramic shots providing 360-degree views of an area. These I actually found to be extremely interesting in providing a view into the lives of these simple villagers going about their business or on the flip side, a view of the utterly empty vastness of Iceland. Also used are several time lapsed sequences showing the decay of a carcase or the changing of the seasons. A body might rot away but the mountains remain forever.
It is the simple mundanity of these people’s lives which is on display here. There is very little to do but exist, do your chores, and sing to yourself. But I do still wish more was done to explore the growing tensions between Lucas and Ragnar. Both Hove and Sigurðsson play their parts well with the invisible language barrier between the two always on the cusp of breaking. Alas, Pálmason’s script seems as uninterested in human interactions as Lucas is as a character. At least, up until such points where something needed to happen to push the narrative forward.
I admit, I was a little disappointed to discover the supposed “seven wet-plate” find was a fabrication, hoping the entire runtime to potentially see the real images at some point. Still, never let the truth get in the way of a good story and Godland‘s can be either simple or complex. It is as deep or as shallow as the viewer is willing to give it credit for. Exploring themes of isolation, colonialism, and the cost when one loses whatever faith they have. What goes without question however is the gorgeous cinematography capturing the beauty and loneliness of its Icelandic landscapes.
Godland very definition of a slow-burn, though still a thought provoking film.