BFI LFF 2022: Godland

Godland, directed by Hlynur Pálmason, screening at the BFI London Film Festival, is an incredibly visually beautiful and involving unfolding story of the consequences of a Danish Lutheran priest’s loss of faith in 19th-century Iceland.

Cold Comfort

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Godland is visually stunning. Icelandic writer-director Hlynur Pálmason (A White, White Day) involves you in its unfolding story of a priest’s faith unravelling in the face of the terrible beauty of the unforgiving, vast Icelandic scenery.

At the end of the 19th century, a pale and ascetic young Danish priest, Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove), is given the mission by his bishop of travelling to Iceland to build a church for a remote community. At that time, Iceland was part of Denmark. But the priest does not speak the language and has a colonialist’s mentality towards Iceland and its people: he arrogantly dismisses the efforts of his interpreter (Hilmar Gudjonson) to teach him during their sea voyage there.

Lucas is a keen photographer, using the laborious wet-plate technique – collodion process – of the time. He takes with him to Iceland a cumbersome, heavy wooden camera box, a burden strapped to his back like a crucifix and several superfluous boxes of books.

The screen recreates the look of old photographs by using the boxy 1.33:1 Academy ratio with rounded corners: Godland was allegedly inspired by finding a trove of those early glass plates, though Pálmason also says he made this up. But the young priest is a fish out of water in this wild country: ironically for someone so intent on recording his surroundings, he is unable to comprehend their elemental beauty.

Lucas is allocated an Icelandic guide, his polar opposite and, it turns out, nemesis. Ragnar (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) is older, physically robust, viscerally connected to the land and its folklore. He regales the spellbound travellers with stories and traditional songs. The two men could not be more different and do not communicate civilly with each other: supposedly they do not speak each other’s language.

The first half of the film tracks their ill-fated, cold and snowy cross-country journey with a team of men and pack horses to carry the priest’s baggage. Lucas’s arrogance and failure to understand the landscape or the warnings of his experienced guide cause a terrible accident. Lucas grows weak on the prolonged trek in, what is to him, a desolate landscape. His isolation and loss of faith grow despite his prayers.

The second half shows Lucas in the community he has come to serve, though by now he is broken and in need of spiritual help himself. By now it is summer. He stays in the home of a no-nonsense widowed landowner (Jacob Hauberg Lohmann) with two daughters – adult, marriageable Anna (Victoria Carmen Sonne), who longs to return to Denmark, where she grew up, and cheeky teenager Ida (Ida Mekkin Hylnsdottir, the director’s daughter).

He churlishly refuses to officiate at a village wedding before eventually the newly built church is – disastrously – inaugurated by him.

Three tragedies ensue because of the passions aroused by the unrelenting land. The film sometimes jump-cuts brutally, which can confuse, but its photograph-like images are broken up by two striking 360-degree pans – of the land and the people. There are time-lapse scenes that give a sense of flesh and bone being absorbed into the natural world: the wide landscapes show mankind’s smallness in it. Alex Zhang Hungtai’s other-worldly music unforgettably creates a mythic atmosphere where you feel anything might happen.

Godland is an incredibly visually beautiful and an involving experience, both historical and contemporary: language, spirituality, environment, colonialism.

Godland premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and screened at the BFI London Film Festival on 9 and 10 October 2022.

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