The Iceman Cometh

Hlynur Pálmason’s Godland takes a leap of faith

Hlynur Pálmason, Godland, 2023, 35 mm, color, sound, 143 minutes. Lucas (Elliot Crosset Hove).

GODLAND HAS TWO TITLE CARDS: one in Icelandic, the other in Danish. Hlynur Pálmason’s new film exists in the tension between these two languages, which are really two worlds: one wild and unforgiving, the other cramped, rationalistic, “modern.” The film follows Lucas (Elliot Crosset Hove), a Lutheran priest dispatched from Copenhagen to build a church in a remote settlement on the Icelandic coast. It is the nineteenth century, and Iceland is still ruled from abroad, and everything about Lucas sets him at odds with the land to which he has been sent. The priest does not speak Icelandic, and cannot share more than a few words with Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurðsson), a farmer whom he hires to show him the way and construct the church once they arrive. They head out overland, a punishing journey that snakes west beneath the glow of an erupting volcano, climbing from the coast to the boglands and on to a vast landscape of barren glacial fields. By the time he arrives at his destination, Lucas is pale-faced and sickly, a drawn husk of a man who never quite overcomes the grueling trek—a trip, his new hosts tell him, he could have avoided had he simply gone the whole way by boat.

Yet as Lucas explains, he chose the hard way. In addition to being a priest, he is also a photographer, and he took the scenic route so as to document the “terrible beauty” of the territory and its people. Pálmason lingers over the painstaking process of taking and developing a wet plate collotype, from the smearing of white lotion on a sitter’s face to the delicate wiping down of the photographic plate. Lucas’s enthusiasm is at once artistic and imperial, fixing the image of the landscape—all barren coasts and windswept glens—as seen by his foreign eyes: an unforgiving, even savage place that he has been sent to reform.

Significantly, the Icelandic Pálmason has chosen to frame his story through the Dane’s lens. Cinematographer Maria Von Hausswolff shoots the film in a round-edged variation of the Academy ratio that creatively mirrors the staid compositions of early photography. The results are frequently sublime, full of the vast distances and brilliant natural light that so compel and disturb Lucas. Once the group arrives at their destination, the frame takes on the intimate aesthetic preferred by Nordic photographers like Sune Jonsson, a sunnier, subtler vision of wooden interiors and vegetable gardens. But the film, like Lucas, cannot settle there. This is a domesticity that rests lightly along the coast, like a sheet that might easily be snatched away by the wind.

Hlynur Pálmason, Godland, 2023, 35 mm, color, sound, 143 minutes. Lucas (Elliot Crosset Hove).

Who gets to document a country, to define it from without? Pálmason has lived in both Iceland and Denmark and is clearly interested in how contact between these two cultures has shaped his home island. The geology is Icelandic, but the photos are Danish. Icelanders build the church, but a Dane will preach there. Lucas’s mission is religious, but also administrative, ensuring that God is being worshipped by a representative of the state and in the state’s tongue. Yet his photographs reveal a striking place, and provide its people with an image of themselves. Once Ragnar completes the church, he asks Lucas to take his portrait, perhaps eager to leave a record of himself, even in a foreigner’s idiom.

Godland is far from the first film to use religious emissaries to explore such tensions. It is hard to name a single notable entry in the canon of missionary cinema that isn’t, on some level, about power, coercion, and the fraught, probing interactions between cultures, languages, and faiths. At their worst, these stories reduce local peoples to part of the scenery, adding a dash of exotic color to stories of faith challenged and conscience rediscovered. Consider The Mission (1986), whose frames are filled with Guarani tribespeople that the film never deigns to name. The Indigenous characters exist largely as childlike archetypes illustrating the good of our heroic Jesuits and the evil of their colonial administrators. One never grasps what the Guarani make of Christianity, or how they might (or might not) adapt it to fit their existing cosmology. The film frequently replicates the profoundly racist worldview it desires to rebuke.

Hlynur Pálmason, Godland, 2023, 35 mm, color, sound, 143 minutes.

Other films have done a better job at raising disquieting questions about exploitation and representation, about the intersection of incompatible ontologies and the spiritual tolls of colonization. Becoming a missionary necessarily involves a kind of totalizing metaphysics, a belief in the universality of certain truths. Such a total view can only last so long when confronted with existing alternatives. In these films, the missionary must convert to the reality of their new land, or they will be defeated by it. Think back to Black Narcissus (1947), in which an attempt to transplant Catholicism to the Himalayas falters against the deeply human weaknesses of hubris and lust, or to Bruce Beresford’s Black Robe (1991), which sends a Jesuit priest up the St. Lawrence and into a series of native conflicts that have very little to do with him. When he attempts to convert the dying Chomina (played by a phenomenal August Schellenberg), the Algonquin guide replies that he will not go to a heaven where he will be alone, without his people. When the priest finally arrives at his destination, a mission where many are dead or dying of smallpox, the Huron convert only out of despair. If their medicine men cannot save their lives, perhaps the French god might. Yet the Jesuit finds that he cannot promise this to them. His great act of love becomes yet another display of impotence.

Perhaps no work better explores the fraught relationship between missionary and convert than Shusaku Endo’s classic 1969 novel, Silence. Two Jesuits arrive in Japan during a period of intense religious persecution. They have been tasked with ministering to the country’s hidden Christians, and with determining the truth of a disturbing rumor that their one-time mentor has apostatized and turned against Christianity.

In his 1971 film adaptation, Masahiro Shinoda prefers the Japanese side of the equation. Coscripted with Endo, it opens with images taken from screen paintings depicting both foreign priests and local believers. Much of the early going is devoted to showing the ad-hoc rituals and iconographies that Japanese Christians developed during their years in hiding, isolated both from Catholic priests and their persecutors. Their hymns sound like Buddhist mantras, and their Marian figures resemble statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. Both the Portuguese priests and Japanese authorities scorn these deviant ceremonies, but they hold an undeniable syncretic power.

Martin Scorsese’s 2016 take locates the powerful psychological center of Endo’s story, contrasting the arrogantly naive Father Rodrigues (a career-best Andrew Garfield) with the earnest and ultimately unshakeable faith of the Japanese Christians to whom he ministers. The idealistic Rodrigues cannot imagine turning away from his faith, even to save the lives of those who share it, an agony that he identifies with Christ’s suffering on the cross—precisely the sort of poisonous certitude that might convince a young man that he must save the souls of a country he has never seen and does not understand. Scorsese’s film condemns Rodrigues for his arrogance, but ultimately cannot deny the core of his conviction that, in a country as ruthlessly unequal as shogunate Japan, many might flock to a message of universal salvation, and for good reason.

Hlynur Pálmason, Godland, 2023, 35 mm, color, sound, 143 minutes. Lucas (Elliot Crosset Hove).

Like that of Father Rodrigues, the faith of Godland’s protagonist is insular, even narcissistic. Lucas reveals himself to be a better photographer than priest. He seems far more interested in documenting the rugged terrain than in actually ministering to its people. During a mid-journey breakdown, he declares that he is “so full of God that no harm can touch me.” He dismisses Ragnar’s earnest questions because he poses them in the wrong language. When the carpenter asks his forgiveness, the priest dismisses and then attacks him. And when it comes time to actually preach in his new church, he falters before fleeing into the hinterland.

Godland finds a metaphor for this spiritual agonism in the vastness of the Icelandic countryside. The film ends on a static shot of a mountain glen advancing through the seasons. A series of sudden cuts leap forward through harsh winter winds and blooming summer days and back again, a landscape wild and indomitable. Looking out through that wilderness, Lucas’s mission seems impossible, doomed from the start. His reserved, Protestant piety was never a match for Iceland’s terrible and unsparing beauty.

Godland is out in US theaters on February 3.