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Godland ★★



Director: Hlynur Pálmason

Cast: Elliott Crosset Hove, Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson

Release: April 7, 2023 

For those with wanderlust embedded in their brains and hearts, Iceland is a Mecca for finding oneself — and the perfect Instagram photo. It’s always going to be a place that does the heavy lifting, whether through breathtaking waterfalls and rock formations or a horizon that teases the meaning of life and human existence. After feeling every second of its 143-minute runtime, Godland is arguably a film that relies on the inferred framework of its location, with its meandering and often void plot melting into the hills. Examining colonial ideals and the grapple with the mother tongue, the verve and power behind director Hlynur Pálmason’s vision can often get lost in translation.

In the late 1800s, young Danish priest Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove) is sent to remote Iceland in order to build a church in a fledgling community. Taking his camera with him, Lucas captures many of the figures he meets along the way, including his Dane-hating guide Ragnar (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson). After a life-or-death journey across the country, Lucas’ presence within the community causes eventual upset that cannot be changed.  

Before the subject matter of Godland can even be tackled, it’s worth pointing out that this is not a film of half-heartedly switch on at home. Its gruelling pace and lack of overly dynamic action make sole attention on the subject matter paramount, with important plot points in the narrative easy to miss. The film’s first half is a quietly epic journey to Iceland’s promised Christian land, and it’s here that viewers learn as much as they need to about Lucas. In a nutshell — and aptly observed later by Carl (Jacob Lohmann) — Lucas is pathetic. Doing nothing or worth or particularly in line with the idea of being a “good Christian,” his often feeble and foolish nature is observed from the moment he hits Icelandic terf. With a short fuse and an apparent liking to getting other people’s backs up, Lucas almost views himself as the omnipotent force that he claims to worship. Possibly because of this, there’s little emotional connection or empathy between the core cast, either struggling to keep their head above water or quietly plotting their own intentions. 

Themes are heavy yet sparse when Godland is unpicked, often choosing to stare into a cinematic abyss rather than unpack the nuances of what it’s actually discussing. Religious colonialism is, of course, at the fore of this, bleeding into individual interest and half-baked attempts to become a predator with undeniable machismo. The fact that Godland switches between Danish and Icelandic so frequently is a refreshing means of showing struggle, making it deliciously difficult to decipher what’s what by an outside eye. In essence, the film feels like cinema for cinema’s sake — leaning into the location and a perceived visual look and leaving the ambiguous narrative to fester. Though it has gorgeous brawn, Godland doesn’t always have gorgeous brains. Much like a boat journey across the waters of Europe in the 19th century, watching it is hardly an enjoyable act. For those that aren’t a fan of short, uneven nail beds, it’s also best to look away now.

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