‘Godland’: Denmark and Iceland Share a Dark Pilgrimage

Image BFI London Film Festival
Image BFI London Film Festival

BFI London Film Festival

From: 5 Oct 2022

To: 23 Oct 2022

Various UK venues (not Scotland) and online

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Little happens in Godland’s 138 minutes. Lucas, a young Danish priest, is sent on a mission to a remote Icelandic island to build a church, and photograph its people en route. But somehow it remains a perfectly-paced religious experience: Nature is God, narrated by man with a humour, or honesty, that resists translation. We cannot watch the awesome viscous blues and oranges of volcanic lava, without recalling the opening remark of its stench, ‘like the earth shat its pants’.

It’s certainly more sublime than picturesque. Scandinavian landscapes are shot in darkness, then terrifying light, a sort of cinematic chiaroscuro which bears more resemblance to early Van Gogh paintings than the real-life first photographs of Iceland on which the film is based. Director Hlynur Pálmason pays homage by shooting on film, in square aspect with rounded corners. But he adds layers to this paternalistic gaze, in lingering, close shots of their subjects’ reactions. This reimagined agency serves to write the overlooked experiences of women and the local Icelandic shipmates into the historical narrative, without anachronism.

Brandishing his voyeuristic lens, Elliott Crosset Hove excels as Lucas, the cloaked priest who only becomes a worse person from his pilgrimage. But Godland’s most moving performances come from the Icelandic guide Ragnar (Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson). Though he physically constructs the church, he’s never really allowed in, and is instead ridiculed by Lucas in his efforts to better himself. Once back amongst ‘civilisation’, Lucas loosens all ties, refusing to understand his Icelandic language nor photograph his ‘animal’ aspect.

Above all, Godland exposes the relationship between Denmark and Iceland in the nineteenth century – as coloniser and colonised. Introduced in the Icelandic language, and concluding in the Danish, the linguistic hierarchy is clear, even to non-native speakers. Denmark – as civilisation, literacy, religion – dominates, whilst the Danes’ dependency on Icelandic knowledge to cross these terrains is purposefully silenced. ‘Terribly beautiful, or terrible and beautiful?,’ they muse of their landscapes. It’s both.

With thanks to Jelena Sofronijevic (Twitter: @jelsofron) for this review; their podcast Empire Lines is available on all streaming platforms. The BFI London Film Festival continues online until 23rd October. The closure of Edinburgh’s Filmhouse, announced 6th October, unfortunately means no BFI Festival screenings in Scotland.

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