Godland is not a film for everyone. Inaccessible at times and undoubtedly not without traces of indulgence, this arthouse film rewards its patient viewers with nuance, hidden details, and smart critiques of colonial ideology in unexpected ways. Beautifully shot and innovatively framed, the film feels fresh and unconventional, and despite is overlong running time, still manages to pack quite the punch.
The film centers on young priest, Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove) who is being sent by the Danish Church during the 19th century to take over a parish in Iceland (during that time, Iceland was one of Denmark’s colonies). The trip, as his superior explains, is that of monumental importance: an indispensable step further in ensuring Denmark’s dominance over the island. Never actually having a choice nor the power to decline the mission, Lucas is nevertheless somewhat excited at first – he is a skilled photographer who loves to capture people and places, creating moments to be remembered.
Even though Lucas is warned the trip will not be easy, thanks to the island’s unforgiving weather and brutal climate, he is stunned to find out that things are far worse than he could have imagined. The journey takes its toll on the young priest as he comes to discover he was never the right choice for the assignment. His relationship with the island and its people (notably his Icelandic guide Ragnor) reflect the young man’s inability to communicate, literally and metaphorically, with a nation he completely fails to understand. At every step along the way, the journey feels like a threat to his own existence, a menacing force that could swallow him at the closest possible chance.
Pálmason’s film is essentially a film about how colonial ideology, with all its notions of superiority and profound ignorance of the own people it aims to dominate, is both short sighted and self-destructive. The filmmaker chooses to focus on notions of communication and understanding, as demonstrated by linguistic differences and the craft of photography, to make some great points about the reasons why such ideology was never destined to bring in any of the promised prosperity to those people it claims to save.
With sparse dialogue and some truly stunning shots of the Icelandic landscape, Pálmason utilizes the island as a character of its own, surrounding Lucas as it gradually starts to suffocate him. Entangled in its freezing weather, horrifying volcanic eruptions and unnerving horizons, we follow Lucas as he decays internally and externally. Pálmason’s masterfully shot scenes of animal remains buried under the weather further reinforce this idea: as the days go by, Lucas’ belief in what he was sent out to accomplish evaporates, as is his hope for any sort of return to his motherland.
It is also clear Pálmason is not interested in making this an easy, comfortable watch for his viewers – the film’s long, quiet sequences risk alienating mainstream audiences with its abstract visual compositions and constant metaphorical elements, but just like the land its protagonist fails to comprehend, this is a film that never tries to appeal nor give concrete answers: as elusive as the island it takes place in, audiences are left filling in the gaps and making their own assumptions. And while that mostly works, some sequences in the film could have been trimmed to create for a much more focused experience.
Maria von Hausswolff’s stunning cinematography, elevates the film, creating a haunting, ominous experience that translates Pálmason’s complex screenplay perfectly to the screen – and what starts as lush, gorgeous-to-look-at shots of nature soon turns into a nightmare of sorts; nature’s own revenge on an ignorant fool whose shortsighted dreams of conquering a land are soon crushed by the very land that rejects such occupation.
The film’s final sequence, certainly one of the year’s most visually and thematically stunning, perfectly brings home this idea. Losing all sense of purpose and the courage to resume the mission, Lucas is harrowingly swallowed by the island, his once-deemed captive becomes his very own captor, the colonized colonizing the colonizer. It is an unforgettable, striking sight to behold, as we witness the slow decomposition of the young man’s corpse and ideological illusions, crushed by forces he was a fool to underestimate.
This review is from the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.