Cormac McCarthy once wrote that God “speaks in stones and trees, the bones of things;” and while watching Hlynur Pálmason’s newest film, I couldn’t help thinking of the hubris it takes for man to believe he could possibly interpret the divine. The movie follows a travelling Danish priest overseeing a church’s construction in 19th century Iceland, only for his faith to be tested by carnal temptations and murder. While it can certainly be seen as a commentary on organized religion, Pálmason, even in the trailer, seems more focused on exploring how these institutions can be co-opted by narcissistic men whose ‘faith’ vanishes at the first sign of adversity. Using the lush, brutal landscapes of his native country, this Icelandic auteur provides viewers with a breathtaking, albeit flawed, exploration of faith and mortality.
Anyone who watches this film will talk about the cinematography. Maria von Hausswolff uses a boxy aspect ratio to deepen the claustrophobia that builds as Lucas and his entourage are buffeted by heavy winds and rain. Tension slowly rises as they fight for survival while marching through Iceland’s endless geography, gradually turning on each other and themselves. This alienation is captured in the film’s use of longshots, holding characters in frame until they’re nothing but dots on an enormous horizon. As we see the grandeur of nature counterpoised against the pettiness of man, Lucas’ mission starts to appear less holy, and a lot more like self-aggrandizement—especially when he makes decisions that are less for crew safety and more for the glory of their mission. The editing of Julius Krebs Damsbo is a bit quick but often very effective, hinting at the evanescent quality of life with time lapses showing the seasons changing, bodies decomposing.
When he eventually gets to the location where the church is to be built, Lucas faces a different kind of challenge: his fellow man. Distrustful townspeople and the possibilities of young love cause the priest to stray farther from his spiritual duties. He has trouble connecting with those around him—partially due to a Dutch-Icelandic language barrier, but we also get the sense that there’s something deeper causing the gap between this man and his newfound community. Maybe that’s why, though the lens of his camera, Lucas tries to control the world around him; to bend and twist things much larger than himself into something that can be comprehended and dominated. Much like the Judge’s sketchbook in McCarthy’s novel, Blood Meridian, Lucas positions people and objects in a certain way, thereby dictating which people and places are remembered, as well as how they’re remembered. There’s a fascinating meta-commentary being had here with the nature of filmmaking itself: Pálmason is questioning the role of those behind the camera, exploring how their intentions shape the course of memory and history. Much like it takes a rather audacious person to say they alone speak for God, it takes the same kind of gall to determine who and what is and isn’t worth remembering, to regulate the apparatuses of cultural remembrance. I just wish these dots were a bit more connected throughout the film.
It’s certainly well-paced, and I would even say the two moments of sudden violence towards the end feel set up enough for viewers to believe them. But Pálmason’s script is so shy that our only windows into theme and character are razor-sharp cinematography and sometimes-ham-fisted dialogue, resulting in a lot of missed opportunities for audiences to get closer to the stakes at the heart of the film. Because some scenes cut a bit too soon, the most important moments have a lot less gravity than they could. Nevertheless, it’s certainly worth a watch.
The world can be a brutal place, and sometimes we take refuge in questionable institutions; but there’s a cyclical nature to life in which we can perhaps transcend death and memory. “One day, flowers and grass will grow here and you will be in them, and I think that’s beautiful,” cries a young girl to a decaying corpse in the final scene. This makes us question if anyone truly dies, or if we just change shape, thereby resisting being defined by egotistical men and their cameras. GODLAND is a beautiful, ruthless film, and I hope you get the chance to see it soon. It might not be in theaters anymore, but was just added to the Janus Contemporaries collection for a reasonable price! If you enjoyed this review, consider subscribing to the blog’s Patreon by clicking here! It helps pay the various fees that come with running a website, and keeps this blog ad-free and independent. There are also some cool benefits for those who choose to support the blog including: suggesting which movies I review, getting personalized movie recommendations, access to free giveaways and more!