Iceland is like no other place on Earth, and the films that take place there can’t help but reflect this. In “Godland,” Icelandic writer-director Hlynur Pálmason attempts to see his homeland through outside eyes, the way it must have looked to the Danes who claimed and controlled it until World War II. Icelandic period pieces are often set much earlier, à la “The Northman,” but this one — at once visually striking and emotionally austere, in its almost Bressonian restraint — takes the country’s colonialist past as its subject, pitting a late-19th-century man of faith against a force far stronger than him, like some kind of Arctic, art-house “There Will Be Blood.”
In the opening scene Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove), a Lutheran priest, is sent by the Church of Denmark to establish a parish in Iceland, not at all prepared for what lies ahead. He’s a sincere and devout idealist, keen to discover the country and its people on the way to his destination, but Iceland is less welcoming than he’d expected — albeit no worse than he’d been warned — and the difficult journey breaks him the same way that Africa did Col. Kurtz in “Heart of Darkness,” another obvious reference.
Undeniably gorgeous as the location may be, Iceland is forbiddingly cold in places, volcanic in others, spewing smoke and stench — an extreme environment that must have felt like some corner of hell to such an intellectual, sent to bring Christianity to its heathen inhabitants. The young priest doesn’t show any such prejudice at first. Proactively curious, he carries a camera and books — too many books — and pauses often to document his surroundings, preparing the glass slides himself with the collodion process.
We’re told at the outset that the film was inspired by seven historic photographs taken by a Danish priest, the first to document the country’s southeastern coast. The rest is freely imagined by Pálmason, the visionary director of “Winter Brothers” and “A White, White Day,” who graduates from Critics’ Week to Un Certain Regard with this Cannes premiere.
Lucas is tall, rigidly upstanding and slightly ridiculous among the strong, sturdy men around him. He throws up on the boat ride over, and later falls from his horse, requiring his guide, Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurðsson), to drag him the rest of the way to the settlement. When Lucas finally reaches his destination, a fellow Dane named Carl (Jacob Hauberg Lohmann, balancing hospitality and menace) asks him, “Why the long journey, when you could have just sailed here?” Why indeed.
Lucas intended the arduous detour as a way of appreciating Iceland, but instead, the trek seems to have turned him against it. As builders work to erect a wooden church on the site, he begins to resent them, especially Ragnar, who struggles to communicate. Lucas and others speak Danish, expecting the same of the locals. Back on the ship, he’d made an effort to learn a bit of the Icelandic tongue, but was easily overwhelmed (there are entirely too many words for rain), and now he is impatient with Ragnar, treating him the way conquistadors did the Natives, as somehow subhuman.
The language barrier between them serves as one of the movie’s key themes, and may not translate as well via subtitles. Pálmason gives the film two names — “Vanskabte Land” in Danish, “Volaða land” in Icelandic — and neither means “Godland.” These titles overtly refer to a poem by Matthías Jochumsson (who later wrote the Icelandic national anthem, “O, God of Our Land”), but this one was harsh, called “Wretched Land,” and tore into a place he couldn’t abide. Lucas wrestles with similar feelings toward Iceland, and his behavior becomes increasingly unusual as the film goes on.
At Carl’s table, Lucas is drawn to Carl’s eldest daughter, Anna (Vic Carmen Sonne), but appears dazed and seems to have forgotten how to pray. Anna’s slightly wild younger sister Ida (the director’s daughter, Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir) perplexes him. Here, in this small, hardy community, Lucas is the proverbial fish out of water, having forgotten the bishop’s advice at the outset: For the mission to be a success, he must adapt to the locals and their customs. No less than his life is on the line.
All this is enormously rich material to work with, rendered all the more engaging by the surroundings. But Pálmason doesn’t make “Godland” easy on audiences. Framed in a rounded-corners Academy ratio, the film can feel as alien as its characters and place, grim like a Lutheran church service, demanding reflection. Pálmason is an artist with a most unique sense of pacing, devoting months if not years to capturing images of a single location under changing conditions. As in “A White, White Day,” there’s a time-lapse element here, as the filmmaker features an overhead shot of a decomposing horse.
It stands to reason that a director with such patience does not tell breakneck stories, but instead expects his audiences to lean in and engage with the project’s strange and sometimes taxing rhythms. He’s a cinematic original whose voice grows stronger and more certain with each film. And God, as they say, is in the details.