Director Hlynur Pálmason has created a striking Icelandic travelogue disguised as a 19th-century missionary drama. A beautiful, slow, and steady film, “Godland” is set against a rough and remote backdrop, and examines the struggle between colonizer and colonized, between humans and nature, between spiritual goals and hubris.
It is late summer in Iceland, a time when the sun never sets, and a young and arrogant Lutheran priest, Lucas, has left his comfortable position in Denmark to trek across colonized Iceland. His mission is to reach a backwater, where he is to establish a church. He arrives at the shore saddled with heavy photography equipment, books, a large cross, and no interest in learning the native tongue or customs of his new home. Instead he relies on a translator who he esteems, and a rough Icelandic guide, Ragnar, who he does not. Ragnar, and his deep distrust of Danes, is a bane to Lucas, a thorn in his side that will not loose. As the two struggle to understand each other’s words, they are certainly reading each other’s thoughts, and each finds disdain there.
“Godland” is a story told in two parts. The first takes us across vast vistas and volcano-effected rivers where Lucas faces choices that his arrogance hinders. The second act takes place once Lucas arrives at his appointed home, where he is taken in by a wise father and his two young daughters. Once again, Lucas’s lack of humility, his inability to see himself as something other than superior to the non-Danes, will be the trait that determines his fate in this small community.
Pálmason is an established director in Europe, having made the acclaimed film “A White, White Day” (available on the Kanopy app with a Bullitt County digital library card). He is a native of Iceland, but spend a good part of his adult life in Denmark, and set out to a make a film that dealt with the the relationship between Denmark and Iceland. Inspired by the poet Matthías Jochumsson’s “hate poem” to Iceland, “Godland” was filmed chronologically over two years, and the film crew found itself mirroring the character’s trek across unwieldy terrain in the lands around Pálmason’s home, often hiking equipment into areas that cannot be reached by car.
Like in “Lamb,” “The Northman,” and Kentucky filmmaker Martha Stephens’ “Land Ho,” three recent films also set and filmed in Iceland, the landscapes here photograph like postcards from a distant past. “Godland” is presented in Academy ratio, shrinking the screen size and rounding out the corners of the square, giving the screen an early-cinema feel. The director made this decision after learning about ‘wet-plate photography,’ a process that the character Lucas recreates throughout the film. But do not be fooled by the film’s opening claim to have been inspired by a box of photos the director found. The opening text is a fiction. Those photos were only in his mind, and were created during filming, but that fact does not detract from the overall feel of this period specific film.
“Godland” is a must-see for all interested in Iceland, early photography, missionary history, and slow cinema, and is a film specially made to see in a theatre.
March 17, 18, & 19
Speed Art Museum / www.speedmuseum.org/cinema / $12 | $8 Speed members
Every month, the Speed Cinema hosts a sneak preview of an arthouse film that is sure to be the talk of the town when it hits wide, or at least the talk of Film Twitter. These films are curated by film critic Harlan Jacobson and his team, with each screening followed by an audience discussion. Talk Cinema is where I first saw “Moonlight,” “Shoplifters,” “20th Century Women,” and “The Farewell,” all great experiences had spoiler-free, and before any critic influenced my opinion.
This month, Talk Cinema will herald the return of Stephen Frears (“Dangerous Liaisons,” “The Grifters,” “The Queen”) to the big screen to solve an historical mystery that reaches back 500 years. Sally Hawkins plays the real life Philippa Langley, an amateur historian whose obsessive research is key to recovering the lost body of King Richard III from beneath a carpark in Leicester. Comedian Steve Coogan co-wrote the screenplay and co-stars in this British comedy-drama.
To say more would spoil the fun of Talk Cinema, a place for Louisville film lovers to get a head start!
Harlan Jacobson’s Talk Cinema
“The Lost King”
Saturday, March 18, 11 am
Speed Art Museum / www.speedmuseum.org/cinema / $15 / $12 Speed members