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|(M) 143 minutes
Godland is inspired by a box of seven photographs made in the 19th century, the first ever taken of the southeast coast of Iceland – except that they never existed. The writer and director Hlynur Palmason invented them, then based his film on the idea they had existed. He makes us believe they did to entice us into the film’s icy reality.
Who took these fictional photographs? And what became of the photographer? Godland is the bone-chilling, eye-dazzling, heart-wrenching response to those questions – and one of the best films of the year.
Elliott Crosset Hove plays a priest trying to make sense of a hostile land.Credit: Palace Films
It is both an epic saga of landscape cinema and a terrifying philosophical voyage. If God exists, why would he send a young fool like Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove) to do his bidding?
Pastor Lucas is full of a desire to save souls in this godforsaken corner of Denmark’s empire, but under-equipped for the task. He is rigid, arrogant and pious – a bad combination.
His experience of life has come largely from books and his rampant self-regard. In short, he is like a lot of the young priests who went out to the colonies during Christianity’s messianic missionary phase, where they often foundered.
He wants to do it the hard way, by sailing to the west coast and walking across country so that he can “get to know it”. An old priest warns him that it will not be easy. These people are different, you will have to adapt, you will need the strength of an apostle to succeed.
Lucas packs up his photographic apparatus and sets sail. He will take portraits as he goes, for which he has to carry heavy equipment. Just getting ashore exhausts him. On a windswept beach, his guide awaits – the gruff and sceptical Ragnar, a middle-aged man with a face like an Easter Island statue (the superb Ingvar Sigurdsson).
The party sets off, Ragnar leading a team of tough little ponies. Most of the guides do not speak Danish and Lucas does not speak Icelandic. What could possibly go wrong?
Ingva Sigurdsson in Godland.Credit: Palace Films
I loved Palmason’s dark and explosive earlier film, A White, White Day. Even so, I was not prepared for the majesty and terror of Godland. The use of landscape is breathtaking and discomfiting. This place is savage, unpredictable, intimidating. At the end of the island, there’s a volcano that smells “like the earth shat its pants″. Lucas wonders if he is approaching the mouth of hell.
The human story here is as powerful as the landscape. Palmason has the technique to match his ambition. Although Icelandic, he trained at the Danish Film School in Copenhagen. This film is an outpouring of white-hot emotion about both cultures. The tale unfolds in surprising directions – especially when he introduces two sisters, one of them played by his own 13-year-old daughter Ida Mekkin Hlynsdottir.
Like all the best movies, we can’t tell where this is going. When it arrives, the finale is worthy of all that has come before. Nobody makes movies like this any more – except that some do.
Godland is in cinemas from August 17.
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