Film Marie O'Sullivan's Film Reviews

Film Review: Godland (2023)


The arrogance of colonisers, particularly those driven by their religious beliefs, meets the might of nature head-on, and there is only ever going to be one victor in the battle. Icelandic native and Danish-trained director Hlynur Pálmason’s third feature is one of the most beautiful films this year.

There’s a moment in Hlynur Pálmason’s Godland where a priest from the colonising nation attempts to force an Icelandic horse over a narrow track on the side of a steep and rocky mountain. The horse is having none of it, of course, and this clash between nature and the will of a visiting human definitely has hints of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo about it. But Pálmason dispenses with the Kinski-esque bombast and instead imbues his young Danish priest Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove) with the quiet self-righteous arrogance of a 19th-century religious leader who believes he knows better than the local population.

Lucas has been tasked with travelling to Iceland (at the time a dependence of Denmark) to oversee the building of a church for the Danish settlers. He is accompanied by a group of Icelanders including a patient translator (Hilmar Guðjónsson) and curmudgeonly guide (the always perfect Ingvar Sigurðsson). The priest treats the early part of the journey as an adventurous pilgrimage until a decision he forces on the travelling group has tragic consequences. The guilt of his choice, combined with the fierce weather begins to haunt and break the priest’s spirit, and by the time he arrives at his destination he is a changed and broken man.

The cinematography (even in the restricted space of the 4:3 screen ratio) is stunning. Swedish cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff, Pálmason’s regular collaborator, selects the most breathtaking glaciers, soaring cliffs or rushing waters as the backdrop for the journey, and it’s almost impossible not to feel the biting cold through her imagery. Time-lapse shots show that the mortal body is gone in a blink of an eye in comparison to the timelessness of the planet. A spectacular almost two-minute-long shot of a waterfall puts the minuteness of humanity into perspective.

It’s also worth mentioning the score by Alex Zhang Hungtai, which brings an other-worldly feeling to events – sinister and sparse, it underlines the feeling of alienation without overtones of horror.

Godland comes in at 143 minutes long and is deliberately slow-paced with dialogue at a minimum (the language barrier between Danish and Icelandic speakers is yet another divisive issue for the protagonists). But it earns this run-time with its contemplation of humanity’s place in the world and the best-looking cinematography this year.

Godland is released in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from 7th April 2023.

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