Apologies for the lack of content over the last few days. I was babysitting a bubbert. However, the viewing schedule has definitely started to accelerate, and I’m here with the second International Feature submission of this Awards Season. As of this writing, 51 countries have made their decisions so far, and surely more will come over the next four weeks. I wouldn’t be surprised if we hit 95 or 100 films this year. There’s almost no way I’ll be able to see everything, though God knows I’d like to. But I’m making a decent start of it, with three entries under my belt and several more on the horizon either during or after the prestige film festivals over the next few weeks. If I somehow clear the eventual shortlist before it’s announced, I will plotz.
Today’s contender is Godland, a joint venture of Denmark and Iceland, and officially put forward by the latter. It debuted at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and had a very brief theatrical run here in the States back in February. It’s currently available on VOD rental services like Vudu and Amazon, and I highly recommend you give it a look. Not only is this a worthy hopeful in this specific category, for me it’s one of the best films of the year.
Set in the late 19th century, the film is something of a Northern European odyssey, with a priest making the long journey between the two nations (Iceland was Danish territory at the time) to establish a church in a small coastal village. As the synopsis and marketing materials attest, the trek across Iceland’s terrain is a test of his faith, as he must learn to navigate the environment and the locals, all while documenting the experience through glass plate pictures at the onset of still photography technology.
This is something of a misdirection though, as the story isn’t a test of Lucas’ (Elliott Crosset Hove) beliefs, but rather an indictment of them. Writer-director Hlynur Pálmason crafts an absolutely gorgeous character study that gets to the heart of why its lead is a doomed man walking the path to Hell: the hubris of colonialism and the sense of superiority with which some members of the clergy carry themselves.
After a promising start to his quest (including getting a photo of his transport ship’s crew at sea), Lucas demonstrates fairly quickly that he’s out of his depth. Upon arriving in Iceland, he secures the services of a guide in the form of Ragnar (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson, who’s had roles in English language films like Justice League, The Crimes of Grindelwald, and The Northman), who is distrustful of Danes and finds humor in Lucas’ inability to ride a horse. However, things turn serious after the death of Lucas’ interpreter (Hilmar Guðjónsson), with the priest becoming doubtful of his purpose and beginning to succumb to the elements, thanks to his own ineptitude and the language barrier with the rest of the traveling party.
When they finally get to the village and start building the church, Lucas’ demeanor has decidedly changed. Once eager and confident, he becomes stoic and authoritarian. As he supervises construction, he becomes acquainted with a local farmer, Carl (Jacob Lohmann), and his daughters, Anna and Ida (Vic Carmen Sonne and Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir, respectively), developing an attraction to the elder of the two. But this only barely covers a seething tension and contempt for Ragnar that threatens to boil over. Part of it is because he blames Ragnar for his hardship, but much more is that Ragnar has the temerity to question him on matters of religion and tradition, belying an intelligence greater than what Lucas had previously assumed.
This is an absolutely brilliant contrast in characters. Ragnar is gruff at times, but he’s genuine. He is a man who has seen much of life, both joyous and tragic. He cares for both people and animals, particularly his horses. He takes a good faith interest in Christianity, even though he doesn’t share the belief system. He is a man who lives with regret for all the things he’s done and all the things he couldn’t do, summed up beautifully in a dirge-like song he mutters to himself on the road where he lists all the people who have died on his watch, adding “Translator” to Lucas’ associate since he never learned his name.
There is deep pain in his life, and a true man of God would see this as an opportunity to comfort and evangelize as a means of absolution and forging a strong communal bond. But Lucas isn’t interested in that. What he wants is the prestige and power of his position without putting in the work to earn it. All he cares about is his chapel and his photos, tangible legacies he will leave behind as proof that his life mattered in the eyes of God despite his myriad errors. It is his foolhardy decision to cross a deep river against Ragnar’s recommendation that gets the translator killed. It’s his desire for the photographs that leads him to travel across the island in the first place rather than just sailing to the west coast and bypassing all the environmental hazards. He thinks carrying the heavy camera is all the burden he should ever have to bear, even though it’s his choice to tote it. It is he who alienates the villagers by refusing to perform a wedding ceremony in a “half-finished” church. But most importantly, it is his inability to learn or accept the values of anyone else that stymies him, because he really seems to believe that doing so would reduce him to the level of pagans and plebeians. Literally every bad thing that happens to him in this film is of his own doing, but he refuses to adapt to prevent further troubles.
This is part of a great lesson from Pálmason about respecting the world around you and not taking things at face value. In the eyes of the Danish leadership, someone like Lucas would be considered righteous while Ragnar would be seen as a menace. In reality, it’s completely the other way around. The framing device of the film itself serves this end. Before the action begins proper, on screen text says that seven plate photos were discovered in a box in Iceland, and that this is the story behind those pictures. That’s a complete fabrication, as the alleged photographs never actually existed. Pálmason simply made it up as a plot motivator, which was the point. How often do we see such text and just assume that it’s all accurate? Pretty much all the time, right? Well, here’s the rug pulled from under us, not to be deceitful, but to make sure our critical thinking skills are attuned, and that the official line is worth questioning from time to time, especially when we can observe the contradictions that the story gives to us.
Speaking of that observation, the cinematography is astonishing. Maria von Hausswolff creates a near-perfect visual profile for this piece, which not only shows off the natural beauty of Iceland, but excellently encapsulates the central idea of nature versus man substituting for God. Shot on film in 4:3, with the corners rounded off, the whole presentation is meant to look like it was made with the oldest possible camera technology. Most of the cast is blocked in the dead center of the frame, with the camera largely static, aligning with the fact that 100 years ago photos required lengthy periods of stillness to properly capture the light and create the image. The few times the camera does move, it does so in long, unbroken tracking shots with very slow pans, some of them completely panoramic, with the cast shuffling in and out of frame in time with the lens, as if guided by an unseen hand (other than the director’s, obviously). I can’t recall seeing any zooms or handheld motions. This is about as close as possible to being a series of living stills rather than a true “moving picture,” and it’s jaw-droppingly genius.
This is why I love the International Feature competition so much. It’s incredible to me what creative minds from all over the world can come up with. The possibilities are truly endless, and it really doesn’t take all that much to craft something spectacular. In the end, this is a simple story of one man of the cloth and his brewing hatred for a secular man who didn’t cater to his every whim, but the execution makes it into a feast for the eyes and a cautionary tale about ignorant pride. They say that a picture is worth 1,000 words. Well, I’ve spent about 1,400 here, and I could go on for thousands more.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What countries would you like to see make a breakthrough in this year’s competition? Have you ever solved your societal problems with wrestling? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for more content!