Marc van de Klashorst gagnrýnandi ICS (International Cinephile Society) dregur hvergi af sér í fimm stjörnu dómi um Volaða land Hlyns Pálmasonar á Cannes hátíðinni.
“Follow the customs of the locals,” they said. When Lutheran priest Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove) is sent from Denmark to Iceland in the late 19th century to start a parish, his initial enthusiasm is evidenced by the fact that he carries a lot of books and a camera with him, eager to satisfy his curiosity for a new country. He tries to learn some Icelandic words from the translator that travels with him, and even though he throws up on the boat ride to Iceland’s southeastern coast, things really start to go south once he hits land and meets their local guide Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurðsson). The two of them get off on the wrong foot, and things get worse when Lucas forces the party to attempt a particularly dangerous river crossing against Ragnar’s advice, a crossing that results in the death of the translator. Now on his own with a group of Icelandic natives whose language he doesn’t know and refuses to learn, Lucas’ resentment for Ragnar grows as a reaction to him being responsible for the translator’s death. Even when the harsh landscape threatens to overcome Lucas and Ragnar drags him the rest of the way to the settlement, his antagonistic behaviour towards Ragnar does not change.
Up until they reach the settlement Hlynur Pálmason’s third film Godland plays as a sort of Bressonian western, the director’s patient pacing allowing for the rivalry between Lucas and Ragnar to build slowly. The slog through the unforgiving environment at times reminds one of Aguirre, even if Pálmason probably didn’t force his cast to the brink. It’s in this first half that Iceland’s nature feels like a character in and of itself, an organism that tries to repel a foreign body in the form of Lucas. The austerity of Pálmason’s style is in total sync with the narrative. Through every image you almost feel the cold wind on your naked body, and even if shot in Academy ratio (with period-appropriate rounded corners, bringing Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja to mind), the vastness of Iceland’s emptiness is striking (in one of the film’s more humorous moments Lucas says he preferred making the long trek as opposed to taking a boat to the settlement so he could meet the people, to which his conversation partner reacts with a bemused “Which people?“).
Once Lucas reaches the settlement, more dead than alive, the film changes tone, as he is initially taken in by a fellow Dane, Carl (Jacob Hauberg Lohmann). The film’s focus is set on the cultural differences between the locals, including the Danish settlers that did adapt to local customs, and the stubborn Lucas who refuses to blend in. Carl’s eldest daughter Anna (Vic Carmen Sonne) shows a cautious interest in the new priest in town, a fact not missed by her sharp younger sister Ida (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir, Pálmason’s daughter). Much to the chagrin of Carl, Lucas reciprocates Anna’s advances, but this is about as far as his integration into the community goes. His animosity towards Ragnar doesn’t diminish, even if the latter tries to hold out an olive branch by showing a genuine interest in Lucas’ religion. All eagerness and enthusiasm Lucas had at the start of his journey has left him, replaced by resentment and bitterness. His relationship with Anna blossoming is a small moment of hope, but a final confrontation with Ragnar shatters any chance of Lucas becoming a part of this small community. His intention may be to teach the word of God, but Lucas will soon learn that in Iceland it is not the Lord, but the land that giveth and taketh away.
The religious nature of this mission and Lucas’ haughty demeanour once the land has broken him show the Danish opinion of Iceland at the time. The country was a Danish colony until well into the 20th century, and Lucas’ approach as well as the instructive talk he gets from his elder at the beginning of the film come from a clear colonialist point of view, an idea of bringing civilization to the ‘savage’ natives, obviously with its roots in a religious superiority complex. Here, further parallels with Aguirre can be drawn, because even if Lucas doesn’t go all Klaus Kinski on the Icelandic community, there are definitely Herzogian overtones to the narrative, if not the film as a whole.
Songs and stories play a big part in pointing out the differences between the Danish and the Icelandic, and language in general is portrayed as a barrier that some are unwilling to cross. The director has made it a point to give Godland both a Danish (Vanskabte Land) and Icelandic (Volaða Land) title, to underline the divide in the relationship between the two in the film’s time period. Taken all together Godland is a narrative about the corroding effects of colonialism, which is a theme that one would expect for a film set in the Southern hemisphere, but is refreshing to find in a setting where there is friction between two peoples we would normally regard as kindred.
Along with the interesting and well-developed thematic content of the film, Godland finds a richness in the surroundings as well. Despite shooting in the narrow ratio, the sense of being overwhelmed by Iceland’s beautiful but harsh and unforgiving nature is caught exceptionally well by Maria von Hausswolff’s camera. The framing, especially once we reach the settlement in the film’s second half, structures Lucas’ rigidness and the flecks of human settlement in this unwelcoming land, and von Hausswolff’s camera movements follow or even dictate Pálmason’s distinctive pace. Shots of a decomposing horse are time-captured over more than a year; the seasons pass, and all that remains is the land. It’s as if nature says that this is not a land meant to inhabit, at least not by those not willing to live to its rhythms. The measured pacing will put some viewers off; this is stark, slow cinema, full of windswept atmosphere but restrained in its drama. But those willing to give themselves over and follow the customs of Pálmason’s cinema will find a rich and rewarding epic that evokes some of the greats in cinema history without becoming derivative, feeling totally its own beast.