KVIFF 2022: 'Godland' is an Especially Stunning Look at Failed Faith
by Alex Billington
July 6, 2022
God is everywhere. God is in the land, God is in the rain, God is in the snow, God is in the air. But is God in men? I'm not so sure, considering how despicable men can be… Godland is a Danish / Icelandic film that initially premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. Many critics who saw it then were saying it deserved to be in the Main Competition in Cannes, not in the Un Certain Regard section. Now that I've caught up with the film at the 2022 Karlovy Vary Film Festival, I couldn't agree more. Not only is the film truly spectacular enough to play in competition, it probably would have won an award because it deserves all the acclaim and more; acclaim from critics and hopefully from other festivals it shows up at later this year. It's going to be in my Top 10 this year, and it'll probably be in the Criterion Collection soon enough. I'm glad I waited to watch this on a big screen, it is a MUST for this movie. Cinematography of the year in this disarming masterwork.
Godland is written and directed by the talented Icelandic filmmaker Hlynur Pálmason (Winter Brothers, A White, White Day), though it's also a Danish co-production. The film follows a young Danish priest, Lucas, played by Elliott Crosset Hove, in the late 19th century as he boards a boat and travels to the far-away lands of Iceland with the mission of building a church. He decides to travel across the entire island on foot (and with horses) at first to understand and see and experience the unique environment for himself before he reaches his destination. A mistake he comes to regret later. Along the way discovers not only how treacherous and brutal nature can be, but he begins to lose his faith, losing his sense of self and his purpose. All the while the other men around him, a mix of other Danish immigrants and Icelanders, seem to progress with little to no effort, and no loss of determination or awe for the environment. It's a breathtaking, slow burn, poetic journey through an utterly gorgeous hell for this Danish missionary-colonialist-photographer.
It definitely can and will be debated, but ultimately I believe Godland is a really beautiful "religious people are the real assholes" story. I can't quite say for certain that it's anti-religious, but it feels that way. I want to write that Godland is much like Martin Scorsese's Silence by way of Iceland, but it's actually the opposite. God is in the land, not in those that claim to be "men of God", an important lesson for all to learn… While Lucas is the protagonist, the main character we follow throughout this film, he's not a hero nor a good man. He's a failure, both in faith and in determination, and that plagues him as much as it annoys those around him. It brings him down, which is his journey while we, as the audience, journey across Iceland with him. But this is the real lesson of the film. The title Godland (written in the film as both Volaða Land in Icelandic and Vanskabte Land in Danish) seems to be a reference to the fact that the land itself is God, and we must submit to it, not the other way around. The land is God's creation, and we must respect it and let it shape us.
Part of the great challenge of Lucas' journey is that he's also a photographer, bringing along his massive old camera with huge tripod legs and an entire developing station. The film is inspired by a discovery of a box of seven photographs in Iceland from the 1800s. He actually does take some really lovely photos of the people he's spending time with, but doesn't ever learn to appreciate the land as much as he should. The film goes even further submerging us in the story utilizing in an old school 1.33:1 aspect ratio, with the curved corners of the frame visible. The cinematography by Maria von Hausswolff is absolutely ravishing, awe-inspiring, and unquestionably perfect. She deserves an Academy Award nomination for her work in the film. Watching this on the big screen is an experience in and of itself, because it will pull you deep into the story, as if you are watching this all unfold through Lucas' camera's lens. Not only does it feel like going back in time, it's a transporting and exhilarating experience. Iceland has never looked better (even more than The Northman).
There are also a number of wonderful treats to discover within Godland, mainly other characters that Lucas encounters along the way. My favorite is Ragnar, as played by Ingvar Sigurðsson, a hard-edged, bearded Icelandic man who refuses to ever learn Danish in order to communicate with Lucas, but is steadfast in his commitment to helping him. The real star of the film, though, is this utterly delightful young girl Ida, played by Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir (the director's own daughter), part of a family of Danes that moved earlier to the island - though it now seems they're very much Icelanders. One of the best scenes involves Ida posing in various positions on top of her very shaggy Icelandic horse, her playful, witty attitude devouring everyone on screen and beyond. Make a sequel about her, please, I want to see her grow up and kick men's asses. There's also an adorable dog that meets them right when they first arrive on the island and is on screen most of the film, which couldn't have made me happier. Is there anything I didn't love about Godland? Not really.
On top of everything else visual in this phenomenal film, there's a terrific score by composer Alex Zhang Hungtai that fits perfectly with the somber, grueling mood of the story. It is a tale of failed faith and one man's fall from grace, but it's also a saga about the glory of this planet, the extraordinarily special land that we get to live upon and travel upon. We must learn to respect it in order to not succumb to its harshness and indifference towards humanity. Even though it is a slow-paced, arduous film that not everyone will have the patience for, it is an unforgettable journey that I'm looking forward to taking again and enjoying even more.