Godland: The Holy Spirit | TIFF 2022
A film offering a unique cinematic insight on the country of its provenance, combining distinctive the notes of its auteur with homages to some of the finest films in history: to begin my text with a conclusion, this is the way one could describe Godland, the third feature by Icelandic filmmaker Hylnur Pálmasson, which premiered in Un Certain Regard little more than a month ago. As I promised at the end of my review of Cannes, I’m coming back with a series of more ample thoughts on this film, which I believe was unfairly passed over by the jury at this year’s edition of the Riviera festival; thinking that, in the end, it will be vindicated by its lap through this year’s summer and fall time circuit. Truly a breath of fresh air, not just because we are at long last offered an Icelandic historical film set in another age than that of the Vikings, as Peter Debruge noted in Variety – but also because it contains in itself an almost perfect balance between narration, image, and montage, between the spiritual/metaphysical plane and the political one, offering ample possibilities for interpretation not due to largesse, but out of generosity, one that is foremost related to its main topic.
As indicated by a still at the beginning of the film, Pálmasson imagined it starting from seven wet plate photos shot by a Danish priest in Iceland, in the second half of the 19th century. The priest becomes Lukas (Elliott Crosset Hove), an ordained Lutheran sent on a ship to a faraway corner of Iceland, to build a new church on the orders of his parish priest. As he comes ashore, together with a translator and a heavy backpack bearing his camera, Lukas falls to his knees – and if, initially, we are tempted to believe that this is a sign of divine grace, we soon discover that it’s the opposite: Iceland will truly bring the young priest to his knees along his long trip to the farm inhabited by Danish émigré Karl and his daughters, Anna and Ida, on whose lands the church will be built. Led by local ranger Ragnar (a splendid Ingvar Sigurdsson, protagonist of the director’s previous film, A White, White Day) and his hound (the dog won a special mention at the Palme Dog awards!) through the breathtaking, yet perilous landscapes of the Nordic island, dotted by erupting volcanoes and bathed in perpetual light, Lukas ends up deeply scarred by this calvary.
The film is centered on an archetypal theological problem – the priest as Job, suffering the trials of God, confronted with the loss of his grace and even belief on the one side (see the scene where the translator drowns, submerged together with the cross they bring over from Denmark), and on the other, with his fall into sin; the precise narrative point where either of these takes place is up for debate. But Pálmasson, in contrast to Paul Schrader in First Reformed (2018), doesn’t construct his protagonist as a pastiche of other famous cinematic prelates, that is, those brought to life by Bresson, Bergman, Dreyer, or Pialat. In terms of narrative, the Icelandic filmmaker opts to cite a whole different array of filmmakers. Be it Werner Herzog, whose protagonists in chase of unrealizable dreams in the heart of a hostile natural milieu (like in Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes or Fitzcarraldo, both performed by fetish-actor Klaus Kinski) are reflected in the first act’s journey and in the madness that ends up consuming the young priest; be it the early works of Terrence Malick, with their fugitives finding temporary refuge in the heart of nature, as the sisters from the film’s second act recalling Abby and Linda from Days of Heaven (1978).
Buy beyond any narrative interests, Pálmasson is much more interested than Schrader in the potency of cinematic language, although sharing with him a given affinity for unreliable narratorship that is hard to pinpoint (Who is the storyteller? Ragnar? Lukas hallucinating on his deathbed? Ida? All options seem viable at one point). The filmmaker knows that cinema is not just an artform that is inspired by literature, but also one that is durational in nature – be it sublime long single shots (almost time-images), some clocking in at over five minutes, be it the opposite, that is, editing artifices: inserts of details – a flower, the body of a horse –, along with interruptions of the film’s linear chronology through both flashbacks and flash-forwards; the latter reprising the technique with which the Icelandic director opened A White, White Day, using a static frame to observe the same site across several months.
The theological (or metaphysical) conflict is fed by one that takes place between the film’s protagonist and its male secondary characters – on the one hand, Ragnar, and on the other, Karl. The first of the two is the predominant one: the conflict between the priest and his guide starts simmering the very moment they encounter each other – as Lukas is thrown from the back of a black horse, signaling the rejection of the land, only for the older man to immediately tame the animal. In a Christian key of mythological interpretation, Ragnar is the devil, who has come to test the will of Lukas. In a post-colonial one, Ragnar represents the locals who were forcibly Christianized, whose habits and culture (oral in character) are not inasmuch pagan as they are ones that simply exist outside the ritual and social structures of the Church, which they precede – a tension between the practical and the esoteric, the material and the spiritual, which is palpable in the scene in which the Icelanders are sacrificing a sheep while the priest and translator go in search for the setting of their next photo. And in this sense, the Icelander is not wrong to flip the coin, calling the priest “a Danish Devil” – the opposite is equally true. As for Karl, the one who gives up his land for the construction of the church, the conflict has to do with social prestige – although he isn’t filthy rich, the Dane does have a considerably good standard of living, given the harsh conditions; his implicit goal is to further his good image and ranking in the local community. And when Lukas – which he always keeps at a safe distance – starts to threaten this goal, he turns from a mediator to an obstacle.
Without any further details – Godland is doubtlessly one of the best films of the year, to me. Although one can impute the film its rather outstretched duration and some moments of artificial grandeur, it certainly classes above the majority of this year’s narrative films, complacent in the self-sufficiency of pure narrative means, uninterested in that which makes cinema unique – which is precisely the film’s most distinctive and ingenious approach to formality.
Godland was screened at TIFF Cluj.
Ingvar Sigurdsson, Friðrik Friðriksson, Ísar Svan Gautason, Ingimundur Grétarsson
Denmark / Iceland / France / Sweden
New Europe Film