Godland (2022) Eye for Film Film Review

“Referring to something like ‘pure cinema’ is uninspired, but Godland is one of those rare films that has an untranslatable quality that speaks for itself.” | Photo: Courtesy of KVIFF

Once in a while, a film is so monumental that it feels like it’s already a cinematic classic. Whether it’s its religious and historical theme or its awe-inspiring 35mm shots, there’s an aura of timelessness that surrounds the aptly titled Godland. Precise and slow, Hlynur Pálmason’s story of faith plagued by doubt unfolds as if it were an essential story, drawn directly from the 19th-century literary canon in which it is set.

A young Danish priest (Elliott Crosset Hove, as Lukas) sent as a civilizing missionary to build a church in Iceland, which offers fertile ground for a clash between nationalities and cultures. There is a streak of colonial arrogance in the priest’s behavior, often directed at his fellow Icelanders on the journey, especially his stern leader-guide, Ragnar (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson). Simmering tensions build as they move through valleys and weather, each testing the other’s patience. Above all, they do not speak the other’s language, and more than misunderstandings, they actively refuse to understand each other. Lukas feels like the authorized scholar and Ragnar is the all-knowing and proven local.

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Yet, for the viewer, the two are ambiguous. The priest is a fool, falling off donkeys (much to Ragnar’s amusement), underestimating if not disrespectful of the earth, but he’s also a young idealist, carrying a photographic contraption on his back as a sign of romantic martyrdom. self-imposed. He’s arrogant, but not aggressive, and he’s able to be kind to those willing to accept him, much like his friendly translator – and often that kindness is the act of taking a shot. The photograph even later becomes an act of love, as he reaches his new parish in Iceland and falls in love with his new host’s eldest daughter.

Pálmason’s film is not so much a Jobian religious story about a man tested by God on uncertain shores – even if Lukas can naively console himself by thinking so – as a parable about creation and, by extension, the image and the medium. Behind the quest to spread the Christian word more and more in a pagan land, Lukas’ mission is to record, to report on those he meets and whom the camera has never seen before. Godland begins with a title card announcing some very early Icelandic photographs that served as inspiration for the story – mysterious images that we never lay eyes on, and indeed, as Pálmason confessed, never may never exist, but that we can’t help but feel. are recreated while the characters face the camera.

We often see Lukas at work and we, too, watch through a virtual viewfinder those he photographs, with them standing quietly and calmly in front of the camera, in long one-minute shots. Yet other times Pálmason is transgressive, and what would appear as photographs taken are occasional codas of scenes, taken from unclear perspectives. Is this God’s point of view, one might ask.

The brilliance of Godland is that it is, in essence, a work of cinematic ekphrasis. Its slow pace and overt referential interest in capturing images act as if it were codifying and explaining the process of wet plate photography in real time. Lukas’ technique, not exactly choice but historical accuracy, is a process that requires time, expectation and little movement, if not also a certain reverence for the camera at a time when photography was still a new medium. The priest is therefore very careful who to photograph, and even resists taking a picture of Ragnar for as long as he can.

Beyond the theological drama, Godland and Lukas’ journey to a hitherto unphotographed land can be startlingly theoretical, delivering an unspoken commentary on photography, and therefore film, as a document or as having anthropological value. After all, wet plate photography was primarily a medium suitable for portraiture. More reflexivity is added to Godland by the fact that it is undoubtedly shot on film, which, given that film has now become a more artisanal medium, rather invites a parallel to be drawn between the priest and the filmmaker as that craftsmen working with techniques in danger of disappearing. Even if photography is more the direct subject, Palmáson’s film is an undeniable cinematic success. His calibrated shots give the impression that time passes through them, through cinematic time and the duration of the scenes, but also through montages inspired by the passing seasons. Cinema as a continuum and photography as an instance enter into a beautiful dialogue in Godland.

Palmáson’s film is very well anchored in the artistic spirit of its time, which makes its backward and bygone decor very present. As in dialectic with the portraits of its inhabitants, the greatest achievement of the film are its landscapes. Although it may not borrow directly from iconic imagery, Godland’s imagery operates in a very specific spirit of 19th century Nordic landscape painting and Romanticism, where nature is imbued with a feeling religious. Think of the feeling of a Caspar David Friedrich The painting. An overwhelming, picturesque and vast space, where man dissolves as insignificant. The same goes for the landscapes of Godland, the cold shores of an angry sea, the muddy bogs and wet vegetation, the high mountains and the rocky valleys – but all still shining brightly under the Icelandic sun, as if the nature was as inviting as it was impassable. Faith fails at Godland. God has not deserted, instead he is replaced by nature, a textured and visceral nature that is as beautiful as it is frightening. Prayers are useless in the face of cold and rain, and so seem to be Lukas’ institutional teachings.

Referring to something as “pure cinema” is uninspired, but Godland is one of those rare movies that has an untranslatable quality that speaks for itself. If Bresson was preoccupied with landscape, he might be the eccentric ballpark, but Palmáson’s quiet contemplation and larger-than-life imagery is something to be witnessed personally. Exuding in inviting warmth and familiarity as much as in coldness of religiosity and moral loftiness, Godland, in its original title akin to “wretched land,” is a case study for the sublime in cinema, and a film we could look back on years as being an essential landmark of modern cinema.

Reviewed on: August 18, 2022

About Debra D. Johnson

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