Original title or aka: Vanskabte Land

Director: Hlynur Palmason
Starring: Elliot Cross Hove, ingvar Sigurdsson, Vic Carmen Sonne, Jacob Lohmann, Hilmar Gudjonsson, Ida Mekkin Hlynsdottir
Distributor: Palace Films
Runtime: 143 mins. Reviewed in Aug 2023
Reviewer: Fr Peter Malone msc
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Mature themes, scenes of animal slaughter, violence and nudity

A young Danish Lutheran priest sails to Iceland to build a church, travelling the rugged terrain, testing his faith.

Even the title, Godland, has a strange sound about it. Commentators have noted that this is not an accurate translation from the Danish or the Icelandic. Rather it should be something like God-forsaken land, wretched land . . . And, in many ways, indeed it is.

There is little joy to be seen in Scandinavian films. Almost no joy here. This is a sombre and bleak story, a 19th-century setting, and the highlighting of Denmark’s colonial attitudes towards Iceland and its inhabitants, differences in language, and willingness to learn languages, the difference between strong local Viking traditions and the more sophisticated culture of 19th-century Scandinavia.

And, as the title would indicate, this is a film about religion. The central character – the young Lutheran priest Lucas – is seen conversing with the older priest (chomping away enjoying his lunch) sending Lucas on mission to Iceland, to build a church in a village before the winter. Lucas sits upright listening to the priest, his body language serious, his face stern, sometimes expressionless even though so much is going on in his interior life. Lucas says the right words, is pious and earnest but, as is revealed, not particularly devout, not exactly having what we might call a spirituality.

Photography is important in this film, 19th-century experiments, the young priest with a large camera, plates, metals, stopping every now and then to get people to pose, hold the pose, capture the photographs. (The film does start with information that a box of photos was found in Iceland and that this film was based on this – except that this is a fiction, expressed by the writer-director, to have the priest photographer and photographed characters and locations.)

This is a film of great visual beauty, extraordinary photography of extraordinary landscapes, the sea, the remote beaches, cliffs, mountain peaks, valleys, plateaus and plains, streams and rivers, beautiful but harsh, challenging to any human trekking through these landscapes. Lucas has decided to go by land to the village. It’s a difficult journey of many days. Lucas is unused to these landscapes, sometimes collapsing, feeling alienated from his Icelandic guides, especially the rugged Ragnar, who is fiercely Icelandic and patriotic. The tension between the two carries through the film, but there are some wonderful moments when Ragnar actually wants to talk to Lucas about life, about God and the experience of God, though Lucas tends to dismiss him, using the excuse of not understanding his language. And, finally, there is a fine, religious sequence where Ragnar wants his photo taken, makes a confession of his life which suddenly leads to a violent and fatal confrontation between the two.

It is more than something of a surprise to find, when the group, along with us the audience who have shared the rigours of the journey, find a well-stocked town on the coast where the church is to be built.

The latter part of the film shows Lucas adapting (and not adapting) to life in the town, refusing to marry a couple outside the church building which is not complete, indicating his inability to adapt and understand. And, as might be expected, there is a God-forsaken, sombre ending.

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