“It’s terribly beautiful here,” the priest tells a local woman, describing the landscape of his remote outpost. She agrees, but with an important caveat: “Yes, it’s terrible. And beautiful.”
This conversation occurs late in Hlynur Pálmason’s remarkable Godland (2022) and encapsulates the writer-director’s cinematic worldview, one in which horror and grace coexist in unforgiving natural environments (in his hands, an overhead shot of a dead horse is simultaneously disturbing and breathtaking; there’s something almost sublime in how its decomposition from a recognizable animal to little more than a pile of bones is rendered, via a series of cuts across the four seasons).
The priest’s name is Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove), and he has traveled a long way from his native Denmark on a mission – or fool’s errand, depending on whom you ask – to establish a new church in Iceland. The film’s first half documents this journey through settings as varied as lush forests, mountainous deserts, and flatlands covered with ice. Lucas even passes an active volcano whose odor, his superior warns him, is said to drive men insane. The footage Pálmason and cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff capture for these sequences is truly incredible, their extreme wide-angle shots of the travelers – reduced to the size of ants – rivaling similar compositions in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972).
Throughout this journey, Lucas embodies the brazenly naïve religious missionary. Lacking even basic survival skills (he can barely ride a horse), he seems oblivious to the monumentality of his undertaking (the baggage he carries – a gigantic tripod camera, a large wooden cross wrapped in fabric – looks absurd strapped to the horses’ overloaded backs). Moreover, he treats Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurðsson) – the Icelandic man tasked with transporting Lucas and, later, with building the church – with a barely concealed contempt. The feeling is mutual, and this clash between the two men comes to represent – in not-so-subtle terms – the larger conflict between the colonizer and the colonized.
Once Lucas reaches his destination (emaciated and barely alive, if not for Ragnar’s intervention), Godland expands its focus to include a family living near the church site: Carl (Jacob Lohmann) and his daughters, Ida (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir) and Anna (a luminous Vic Carmen Sonne), the latter of whom takes a liking to the young priest and offers the abovementioned words of wisdom. This narrative pivot is jarring and may appear less focused than the spectacular first half, but patient viewers (the film is nearly 150 minutes long) will be rewarded when Pálmason pulls his threads together in a final act that interweaves murder, romance, and even a hint of the supernatural.
According to its opening title card, Godland was inspired by a series of 19th-century photographs discovered in a wooden box. Indeed, Lucas’ camera may be the film’s real main character, or at least the one with the most power. The images it captures determine who is remembered and who is forgotten, who gets a proper burial and who is lost to time. If there’s any consolation, Pálmason seems to suggest, it’s that all sides – oppressor and oppressed alike – are ultimately subsumed by nature. Brutal winds and snow don’t care what language you speak or god you worship. Such transience is terrible. And beautiful.