Movie Review: A Crisis of Faith and War of Wills in “Godland,” Iceland

“Godland” is an Icelandic fable of faith and cultures clashing and colonialism told as the story of a Danish Lutheran priest sorely tested when he’s sent to minister to an unserved corner of the sparsely populated volcanic rock.

Hlynur Pálmason, who directed the modern drama “A White, White Day,” gives us a starkly beautiful 19th century period piece with this film, showcasing Iceland in all its rainy, treeless but still green summery glory.

The back story, related in an opening title, tells of a box of glass wet-plate photographs from the 1800s, taken by a priest and found in Iceland. Pálmason took those seven images (never shown) and conjured up a dark and unsettling fish-out-of-water story about such a priest, a young man (Elliott Crosset Hove) urged to “adapt to the circumstances of the land and its people” by his bishop before departing Denmark.

He’ll be fine. It’ll be fine. He’s got a translator (Hilmar Guðjónsson) with him. No worries.

The film’s lone joke suggests otherwise. We hear that translator feeding word after Icelandic word to Father Lucas on the topsail schooner voyage to Iceland. Lucas repeats them, patiently, one after the other. And then he pauses.

“All those words mean rain?”

This may be tougher than he thought. Maybe they’ll all speak Danish!

Just how much of a problem is obvious shortly after they row ashore for their long packhorse trek across the island. Not knowing Icelandic means Lucas doesn’t understand that grizzled trek leader Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurdsson) just called him a “Danish devil,” and his cargo — crates of books and a wrapped up oversized cross — “damned nonsense.” But thanks to subtitles, we do.

Their quest becomes an ordeal, one made more arduous by the constant “I don’t understand what you’re saying” each man passive-aggressively snaps at the other.

We start to wonder just how wide that language gap is, and if one man or both of them are feigning they that they speak less of the other’s tongue than they do, just to irk or ignore the other.

Thank goodness Lucas has his translator. One river crossing later, he doesn’t.

It’s only after Lucas wakes up, nearly broken by the journey and delivered unconscious to the settlement where they’re to build a church that we learn that this trek that almost did him in and cost another man his life was unnecessary. He was put ashore there because “I wanted to see the land and its people,” he says, and “photograph them.”

Their arrival amongst other folks doesn’t mean the Ragnar tests are over. And the widowed sheep and horse farmer (Jacob Lohmann) who takes him in has other complications, two daughters, one of them (Vic Carmen Sonne) old enough to catch the fragile, despairing priest’s eye. At least they all speak Danish.

“Godland” is a somewhat drawn-out tale told with patience and an eye for what makes Iceland magical. Stunning waterfalls, rolling green mountainsides, swampy tundra, an adorable Icelandic dog and an erupting volcano whose gases “can make men mad,” the bishop warned, all catch our eye, and that of the priest, who breaks out his ungainly camera to try and memorialize people he meets.

The premise had me thinking of Romulus Linney’s novel-turned-play “Heathen Valley,” about a “Christian” valley in remote Appalachia that’s turned pagan or the great Canadian film “Black Robe,” about Jesuits among the First Nations in the 17th century. But these Icelanders aren’t primitive. They’re not all tithing church folk, but some are.

All they need is a new chapel and a priest to minister to them. But a joyful wedding in the unfinished church isn’t officiated by Lucas, who won’t agree to such duties until the church is finished. And his sometime tormentor Ragnar may ask for spiritual guidance. That doesn’t mean this prickly, homesick priest will provide it.

We see two cultures represented, with Iceland somewhat tolerant of “Danish devils,” but with the highhanded Dane not reading the room and ignoring his “adapt to the circumstances” edict from his bishop.

Faith isn’t enough to guide this priest, and “God” doesn’t figure in how the locals deal with this stranger. The hostility is mostly beneath the surface, the moral superiority of colonialism implicit, the practical ineptitude of the Danish devil extending from his lack of skill with a horse to his clumsy courtship of young Anna, and the fact that he barely tolerates the most adorable dog on the island.

A two and a half hour Icelandic parable isn’t going to be to every taste. But Pálmason, framing his movie in old still photograph 1.33.1 aspect ratio, immerses us in a place and a time — beautiful, unspoiled and eternal. And he makes us question, as Lucas, Ragnar and others do, the function of faith in such circumstances, and the usefulness of those who insist on proselytizing without listening.

Rating: unrated, violence, nudity, profanity

Cast: Elliott Crosset Hove, Ingvar Sigurdsson, Vic Carmen Sonne, Hilmar Guðjónsson, Jacob Lohmann and Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir

Credits: Scripted and directed by Hlynur Pálmason. A Janus Films release.

Running time: 2:22


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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