Austere and magnificently bold, Godland marks a continuation of Icelandic filmmaker Hlynur Pálmason’s study of troubled masculinity within severely harsh environments. Heretofore his first feature Winter’s Brother had a setting in Copenhagen, Denmark while his sophomore feature A White, White Day took place in Iceland. Both films took place in a contemporary setting, this time writer-director Pálmason shoots in both Denmark and Iceland and branches off with a deeply psychological, increasingly intense study on the depths of the human soul of a 19th Century Danish Priest. The U.S. distributor Janus film has a put a lot of faith into this nearly 2 1/2 male-centric art film, a film that will more than likely play very limitedly at specialized arthouses in populated cities that will certainly entrance art-house goers. If Janus releases this film on a Criterion Blu-Ray, and if Pálmason continues to make more impressive features and stays prolific, Godland can certainly hold great shelf life and become a celebrated art-house classic in the years to come depending on further audience reactions.
Also serving as screenwriter once again in his third feature, Pálmason is certainly inspired by the films and style of Herzog, most notably Aguirre the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, as Godland draws the greatest comparison to the latter on both a visual and thematic level. Even though Pálmason’s setting of Iceland is a lot drearier and wintry than the tropical jungles of South America in both Aguirre the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, it still holds a Herzogian tone in terms of pace, atmosphere, tone, and aesthetics with ravishing landscape cinematography by Maria von Hausswolff. It is fascinated, like Herzog’s films, by man squaring off against nature, by the twinned aspects of how the extreme depths of nature can push the individual to reach the darkness depths of the soul, and, above all, by creating an eerie, nearly microscopic examination of just how primitive humankind can be once they encounter unfathomable experiences within foreign and brutal landscapes that feel like they are at the end of the world. These Joseph Conrad themes have been explored numerous times before with Aguirre the Wrath of God, and Apocalypse Now, but there is still something refreshing and equally startling about the human psyche in Godland that makes for a singular vision.
Courtesy Janus Films
Comparisons to Herzog will be inevitable; it’s quite obvious Pálmason holds the same sensibilities and visual grandeur as Herzog and delivers an ambitious film with unrelenting scope. Pálmason deserves credit for being a committed filmmaker and going all the way in shooting in very dangerous locales in harsh conditions that I haven’t seen filmed so viscerally since Iárritu’s The Revenant. Stylistically, the film takes some very unique creative liberties with its aesthetics and impressive camera work. Godland’s 4:3 aspect ratio also contains film grain and print scratches that resemble the type of wet plate photography we see the saga’s protagonist Lucas (Elliot Crosset Hove) using after he travels by sea from Denmark to the villages of Iceland in hopes of building a church and photographing the native people. Based on the true story of a real historical figure who went on an expedition along Iceland’s sea coasts. Elliott Crossett Hove’s performance is quite natural, raw, and malevolent. He perfectly embodies both the demeanors of a kind-hearted and high-spirited priest, whose sanity slowly peels away until he unexpectedly transforms into a man of deranged hostility.
Pálmason’s actual aesthetics are never gimmicky either. The boxed-in aesthetic actually heightens the immersion in the stunning landscapes that are suffocating Lucas’s psyche and his perspective. Pálmason observes Lucas walking in a completely alien land of abrupt weather changes, harsh winds, and brutal cold temperatures. The drudgery is certainly executed with artful results. Structurally, the film is divided merely into two halves. The first half of the film follows Lucas and his fellow expeditors as they travel by boat, horseback, and eventually on foot once the horses tire.Even the horses resist the harsh conditions as they refuse climbing up dangerous, uncharted mountains. This is also amplified by Alex Zhang Hungtai’s brooding score, which adds to the film’s mystery.
Courtesy Janus Films
Most of the first half has minimal dialogue as the settlers survive such harsh conditions. The guide of the expedition, Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurdsson), delivers a compelling monologue at a campfire about a nightmare he had of eels, a story that holds foreshadowing of what to anticipate next. The eels certainly serve as an allegory for the unknown, of nature, of the mysterious, and even of how the desires of femininity can lead to weaponized masculinity—that is all Lucas ends up experiencing as the narrative progresses. Just before the film’s midpoint section, Lucas fights hard and carries on with the expedition. Eventually he collapses off his horse and rolls into a ditch from fatigue and illness. He is left abandoned. Through a series of astonishing insert shots of volcano eruptions and ocean waves, we are introduced to a family of characters that include Ida (Ida Mekkin Hylsdottir) and Anna (Vic Carmen Sonne), two daughters to a Danish carpenter, Carl (Jacob Lohmann).
We cut to Lucas asleep in the basement of a cabinet after Ida walks in on him naked. Another guest lives in the house named Ragnar, whose assisting Carl is building a church. Carl informs Lucas that he doesn’t have much room and that he must carry on soon. There is certainly tension that grows between everyone. We sense sexual tension between Ida and Lucas growing, even he’s a man of faith Carl can sense his oldest daughter not to fall in love with him. Meanwhile, an unspoken tension between Carl and Lucas brews as Lucas begins lashing out and insulting him in ways a man of faith would never partake in. Palmason’s theme on self-obsession comes full circle, and how it’s sadly an abhorrence of human nature. Palmason’s has a mutual affection for mother nature and uses it as a backdrop to reveal how the fragility of ego leads to boiling point of human cruelty. This is conveyed once Ragnar challenges Lucas smug held believes on faith and morality, that is interrupted by Anna in a very combative, passive aggressive sequence.
Courtesy Janus Films
We cut to Lucas asleep in the basement of a cabinet after Ida walks in on him naked. Ragnar, another visitor to the house, is assisting Carl in the construction of a church. Carl informs Lucas that he doesn’t have much room and that he must carry on soon. There is certainly tension that grows between everyone. We sense growing sexual tension between Ida and Lucas; despite his faith, Carl senses his oldest daughter is possibly falling in love with him. Meanwhile, an unspoken tension between Carl and Lucas brews as Lucas begins lashing out and insulting him in ways a man of faith would never partake in. Palmason’s theme of self-obsession comes full circle, and it’s a sad reflection of human nature. Palmason has a mutual affection for nature and uses it as a backdrop to show how the fragility of ego leads to cruelty. Ragnar conveys this when he challenges Lucas’s smugly held beliefs on faith and morality, which Anna interprets because the two men speak different languages in what is a greatly scripted and acted moment in the film.
Palmason makes all this work remarkably well with his hypnotic visual style. Whenever possible, there is something both unsettling and poetic about his protagonists demise. Godland depicts Lucas as a man befuddled with his purpose, almost lost in himself and his own goals, but being a priest all becomes a facade to conceal his own egocentrism from the very beginning. You feel the desolation and isolation this character feels in how these vast empty landscapes eventually reveal his true self, and finally you get a potent statement on the nature of man. The effect is staggering.
Godland is now playing in limited theaters.