Cannes Review: Hlynur Palmasons Godland

Lucas’ bishop warns him of the dangers before he sets out to minister to a remote community of Icelanders in Cannes Un Certain Regard title Godland. “It’s easy to go mad there,” he explains at his Copenhagen dining table, steadily chewing his way through the fabulous feast in front of him. Iceland, where the sun never sets on summer nights, where the weather is extreme, the landscape broodingly monumental: just remember the apostles, “a group of lonely men,” the bishop advises as he wipes his mouth. Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove) is not eating; one glance tells you he’s a priest of an ascetic bent.

He is clearly feeling his isolation as he sets out with guides and helpmeets across the sphagnum moss to his new parish. They have a tight schedule, with a fixed deadline of summer’s end to build his church and corral his flock into a weekly show of piety. His leading guide is Ragnor, a surly Icelander played with granite hardness by Ingvar Sigurdsson – like Hove, a regular collaborator with director Hlynur Palmason – who can read the shifting rivers, wrangle horses and endure any privation without complaint.

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Ragnor speaks only Icelandic; Lucas speaks only Danish and, despite drilling from his translator, seems incapable of picking up so much as one local word. It is a barrier that thickens to become an insurmountable wall. They don’t need to exchange views to know that they embody two fundamentally opposed ways of being. The cumbersome photographic equipment Lucas insists on carrying over the mountains, occasionally arranging his entourage to take a picture for posterity, can be read a metaphor for the burden of nonsense he is bringing into this wilderness. The journey itself is a city man’s whim; everything in Iceland is delivered by boat. Lucas just fancies the idea of an epic journey across country. To meet people, he says, but there is no one to meet. Perhaps that is his first sign of madness.

That the wilderness itself is central to the story is no surprise. What is constantly surprising, at least to anyone who has not seen Palmason’s two previous features, is the way he bends the somber majesty of this landscape to his own aesthetic purpose, creating two-dimensional patterns out of the mesh of streams in the valleys and color-field canvases from the mountain walls of moss and rock. Iceland offers endless panoramas; Palmason resists the temptation to be beautiful by using Academy ratio, so that the film image is almost a square. When the camera is on a character, we don’t see a person in a landscape, flanked or even dwarfed by its magnificence. We see a whole person. Sometimes we see a monster.

Lucas nearly dies on the journey. No loss, one might think – Ragnor would think, for sure – compared with the other men and horses lost along the way, largely thanks to Lucas’ vainglorious refusal to bow to the demands of the weather. The survivors do carry him, however, bearing him into the village he is to serve on a stretcher. His billet is the home of a well-to-do farmer. The farmhouse parlor, with its lace curtains and polished dining table, seems impossibly fresh and lovely.

So do his two daughters. Palmason’s own delightful daughter Ida shows off a few riding tricks in a film that is half peopled with horses and dogs. Her older sister Anna (Vic Carmen Sonne) is of marriageable age. As his health improved, Lucas clearly feels the pull of Anna’s vivacity and of feelings that are not entirely pure. Meanwhile, Ragnor turns his energies to helping to build the church, grimly driving nails into wood under the summer sunshine in scenes that feel like the flipside of Peter Weir’s Witness. He hasn’t forgotten how much he hates this turbulent priest.

Godland moves slowly, sometimes painfully so. It must, if it is to convey the sense of the journey not as a popping series of meetings with danger, but as long and draining. Time is, indeed, very much the film’s essence. Palmason is fascinated by weather in general, but particularly by the change of seasons. We see the church scaffold wrapped up in its timber cladding just as the first snow falls. We see the passage of time registered in the death and gradual decay of a fallen horse, a sequence the director filmed over two years. We feel time’s ravages on Lucas’ skinny body and brittle mind.

Palmason is a visionary, pursuing his vision with the sort of disciplined determination that keeps him coming back to take more photographs of a dead horse. Audiences are not necessarily so disciplined; it is possible to find oneself drifting into thoughts of what to have for dinner. But then the light changes, Sigurdsson’s face twitches and you’re back on the path, teetering on the edge of a mountain and heading for a finale that has the force of tragedy. No doubt Palmason will keep working to achieve a film that strikes that elusive balance of pace and pitch. He’s so close now.

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