Filled with the brutal wonder of nature – both topographical and psychological – Hlynur Pálmason’s impressive period drama “Godland” drops us into the harshly beautiful terrain of Iceland for an austerely mesmerizing tale of mad conceit and errant conquest in the late nineteenth century. A sumptuous travelogue it is not; a visually stunning, soul-clenching examination of the curious push/pull between humans and the environment it most certainly is.
With its landscape of volcanos, lowlands, and ice, and hubristic treks marked by doomed clashes and solemn grace, “Godland” – its majestic Academy-ratio cinematography ideally maximized if seen in a theater – is the kind of bold work about which one could imagine Werner Herzog, upon viewing, feeling very seen. And yet with his third feature, Pálmason’s stylized mix of viscerality and mystery is decidedly his own, heralding a talent fully aware of how to achieve ambitious storytelling with memorable execution.
Our protagonist Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove) is a young Danish priest tasked with establishing a church in a remote village on the southeastern coast of Iceland, then under Denmark’s rule. Of his mission, he’s warned by his superior that he’d better learn how to adapt to the island’s unforgiving extremes of weather, land, and personality. Our first taste of Lucas’s abiding colonial arrogance, however, is on the sea voyage over when he stops his translator (Hilmar Guðjónsson) from tutoring him on all the Icelandic words for “rain,” disdainfully mumbling, “Make up your minds.”
The derisiveness is returned in the form of Lucas’s assigned Icelandic guide Ragnar (a great Ingvar Sigurðsson), an older, crusty man of the earth (with an adorable dog) who quickly sizes up his haughty charge as a “Danish devil” ill-suited for an arduous journey. Lucas wants to travel by land, however, so he can document people with his new, cumbersome wet-plate camera, and feel connected to (read: in command of) the island. That he foregrounds humans in his photographs, rather than the landscape, is one indication of where he sees the power in any man/nature relationship. (Pálmason often centers his actors, too, but with the compassion of a portraitist or silent-movie filmmaker, not a colonizer’s superiority.)
Needless to say, the trudge across Iceland’s plateaus, mountains, and glaciers is a shock to Lucas’s God-comforted sensibilities, at the same time cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff’s continuum of thrillingly textured, vertiginous images — colored in the region’s thick greens, ochres and greys — elicits from us a humbling awe. In one quietly virtuosic 360-degree pan, a grim, wide vista slowly narrows until we’re left on the face of the collapsed Lucas, near death.
That’s just the first half of “Godland,” however – the second is set on the picturesque coast where a recuperated Lucas oversees the building of the church as a guest of wealthy Danish farmer Carl (Jacob Hauberg Lohmann) and his two daughters, quietly restless adult Anna (a magnetic Vic Carmen Sonne) and younger, playful Ida (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir). In this environment, more suitable to Lucas’s controlling temperament and socialized skills – the 360-degree pan returns, this time to celebrate life at a wedding — brutish Ragnar is suddenly the outsider, forced to contend with an isolated life beholden to nature.
There’s no getting around the notion that Pálmason’s bifurcated narrative is like a colonial stand-off — an Iceland of stark, elemental dominance set against the condescending, civilizing persistence of the Danes. (There are title cards in each language, too, at the beginning and end.) Historical judgments are of less importance to the filmmaker, however, than depicting the primal effect nature has on humans, even past the point when consciousness is moot: cutaways to a buried body suddenly exposed by a risen river, and later time-lapse shots of a decomposing horse, remind us of how all such conflicts invariably conclude.
Pálmason’s use of music is also noteworthy, from composer Alex Zhang Hungtai’s warped horn motif haunting the first half, to the songs characters play in the narrative, and a final juxtaposition almost comically perfect in its summarizing brilliance: a stately, patriotic Danish tune played over a succession of bluntly desolate images of Iceland, followed by a menacingly choral Icelandic song over the end credits that sounds ripped from a Viking dream.
Looking it up later (it’s called “Brennið pið vitar”), I learned it’s a sailor’s plea for safe harbor in a terrifying storm, and I realized this applies to all the characters in “Godland,” wherever they’re from, however they’re motivated. But as this richly realized, meditative and invigorating saga makes clear: plans are the folly of man, the workings of survival are infinitely more mysterious.