The life and work of writer-director Hlynur Pálmason seems suspended in a liminal space between his homeland of Iceland and the neighboring Scandinavian nation of Denmark, where he studied filmmaking and has now raised a family. And nowhere is that interstitial status more evidently reflected than in his third and finest feature yet, “Godland,” an arrestingly beautiful and philosophically imposing bilingual historical drama about the arrogance of mankind in the face of nature’s unforgiving prowess, the inherent failures of colonial enterprises, and how these factors configure the cultural identities of individuals.
As in Pálmason’s previous studies of seemingly mild-mannered male characters on the brink of a violent outburst, “Winter Brothers” and “A White, White Day,” his latest maps the mental and physical decay of Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove), a 19th century Danish priest of the Lutheran faith tasked with overseeing the construction of a church in a remote corner of Iceland, at the time still a territory part of the Kingdom of Denmark. Like in his other two features, the filmmaker involves the vast landscapes and often brutal weather conditions of his chosen settings as defining elements that influence his men’s turbulent emotional arcs.
Text in both Danish and Icelandic explains that the basis for this fiction is a collection of seven wet plate photographs that remain as sole documentation of a religious man’s odyssey. Once Lucas is on its way to the island, the film’s title appears in both Danish and Icelandic, not at the same time, but each language in its own separate, color-coded title card. That distinction serves as first indication that this is in fact more of a dual journey, with Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurdsson), the proud and much older Icelandic guide hired to get Lucas to his destination, acting as the parallel entity along for the treacherous ride.
In both theme and form, “Godland” is most reminiscent of Lisandro Alonso’s “Jauja,” also about a Danish man in a foreign, unwelcoming land (Argentina in that case), though it too calls to mind Lucrecia Martel’s “Zama” or even Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” — movies about stubborn outsiders bent on conquering or evangelizing communities and environments that reject them. Like Alonso did for “Jauja,” Pálmason opts for the boxy 1.33.1 aspect ratio in “Godland,” which in turn mimics Lucas’ photographs of Iceland’s people and vistas.
Other recurrent marks of Pálmason’s cinematic dialect, the product of his continued partnership with Swedish cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff, stand. There are the leisurely paced tracking shots that slowly reveal a grand panorama of visual information, the sequence of tableaus of all the characters we’ve encountered through the story, or a montage of seasons changing that highlights both the unmovable aspects of the image as well as the impermanent variables, which also appear in “Winter Brothers” and “A White, White Day.”
Clumsy at practical affairs, Lucas fails to take this land on its own terms, with the rugged gorgeousness of its unforgiving terrain, and instead demands for it to obey his will. For a man of God, it’s his ego and a sense of superiority over Icelanders that drive his cause. The photographs he so zealously collects demand an unnatural stillness in a world that thrives on chaos, thus representing an attempt at immortalizing that which is meant to be devoured and transformed by time and by the land itself. In choosing what to include in his frames, he grants certain things added value and not others; he plays God through the lens.
His counterpart, Ragnar, symbolizes a communion with the indomitable, the acceptance of the forces we mortals can’t control, and therefore he’s fostered a relationship with nature that leads with humbleness and respect. He knows how to fish, when to cross a river, and how to survive relatively comfortably in the strikingly inhospitable land of his birth. For a while, one could argue Ragnar is more of a Godly man than Lucas, given that he’s conscious of his insignificance and innately flawed existence. If we chose to interpret spirituality that way, then Lucas and the dogma of Christianity come off as the more primitive take on it.
Initially, Lucas shows a semi-open disposition to experience Iceland’s unspoiled wonders by the hand of an interpreter (Hilmar Guðjónsson) who facilitates not only communication but cultural exchanges. But once tragedy strikes and no translation is available, Lucas’ inability and unwillingness to understand Ragnar take over. When each party tries to reach into the other’s domain, conflict arises, such as when Lucas reveals his inability to ride a horse, which earns him humiliation; or when Ragnar asks Lucas to take his photo, a request the Dane takes with virulent condescension. Their nationalistic vitriol lingers and accumulates under the surface, like a volcano on the verge of a catastrophic eruption.
Eventually, the two will get into a controlled physical altercation, under the watchful eye of a third man, a father (Jacob Hauberg Lohmann), more attuned to living somewhere in between the Danish understanding of civilization and the Icelandic connection to the elemental. But when the remnants of Ragnar’s politeness for the priest vanish, he declares his disdain for all things Danish, including the language that he learned against his will. Not that Lucas ever suppressed his scorn for Iceland, but it’s Ragnar’s admission that he too played God, taking his warped version of justice against the oppressor by his own hand, that tips their slow-brewing hatred over the edge.
Pálmason first brought together the two actors in the 2014 short film “A Painter,” where Sigurdsson played a frustrated father to Crosset Hove. Later, each of them starred in one of his features set in their respective counties: Crosset Hove as a disturbed worker in a limestone mine in Denmark for “Winter Brothers” and Sigurdsson as a former police officer and widower in the Icelandic film “A White, White Day.” That he reteamed them for “Godland” constitutes a compelling meta layer in sync with the overall duality at play.
Although Pálmason’s oeuvre repeatedly examines the aggressive impulses of men born from the worst of masculinity, the women in his films, “Godland” included, offer a wiser, serene engagement with life’s tribulations. The sisters Anna (Vic Carmen Sonne) and Ída (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir), who come into contact with Lucas upon his arrival to a small settlement where the church will be erected, are the product of the same in-betweenness that permeates the rest of the story, daughters to a Danish father and an Icelandic mother.
“One day I will travel from my home in Iceland to my home in Denmark,” says Anna to Lucas about how she thinks of her place in the world. Born in Denmark, she prefers to speak Danish, while the younger, more intrepid Ída has known no other home than Iceland. Beyond the screen, the two commanding actresses also embody Pálmason’s dichotomy: Sonne, from Denmark, starred in “Winter Brothers” and Mekkín Hlynsdóttir, from Iceland, in “A White, White Day.”
Whether the term godland refers to the frozen Icelandic pastures or the refinement of the Danish mainland left behind, depends on what we each value most. Still, for outsiders, not privy to the intercultural dynamics of these two nations whose histories intertwine over centuries, the dispute between Iceland and Denmark on screen, personified in Lucas and Ragnar, reads applicable to other latitudes, because at its core it hinges on the colonizer’s confidence that their way of life reigns supreme, only to be proven wrong. Lucas’ photos say more about his desire for control than about the Icelanders’ shortcomings.
With “Godland,” Pálmason — one of the foremost figures in Icelandic cinema alongside Benedikt Erlingsson (“Of Horses and Men,” “Woman at War”) — has enlisted us for a voyage of visual splendor, as terrifying as it is breathtaking, and divine contemplation. In cinema, he’s found a no man’s land where two opposing worldviews can have a visceral dialogue.
Janus Films will release “Godland” at New York’s IFC Center on Friday, February 3, with a national rollout to follow.
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