By – Gareth Jones
For fans of Scandinavian cinema (Bergman, Dryer), epic battles between man and nature, films in 4:3 ratio
Godland is a magnificent example of epic cinema. It utilizes all the artistic tools of the art form to create a distinctive Icelandic tale, while also continuing the neverending tale of humanity in its battle with itself and nature. This is the third film from Icelandic director, Hlynur Pálmason, and it is a tremendous accomplishment. It will easily make my favorite films of 2023 list.
It begins by telling the audience that this film’s story is based around a series of photographs taken in remote parts of Iceland in the late 19th century. Pálmason creates a striking examination of one man’s journey in both a literal sense across the island of Iceland, but also an engrossing spiritual journey/conflict between a young priest’s evangelism and the natural wonders of the land and people who have learned to respectfully inhabit it.
The story follows a young Danish priest (portrayed by Danish-American actor Elliott Crosset Hove) who is ordered to set up a new church and parish in remote Iceland. He decides to land on one side of the island and journey across the land so that he can take photographs of the landscape, scenery and people along the way. His fervor for this trek is positively Herzogian. He is accompanied on this journey by a translator, a group of Icelanders, and most importantly a guide played by the mighty Icelandic actor Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson. Their relationship/battle becomes the central force of the film. Each representing different approaches and philosophies, their battles both mental and physical begin as a slow burn but build into a raging inferno of confrontations.. Many critics have compared the film to There Will Be Blood and this is a very apt comparison, with a similar battle between two forces. Each film also has an extraordinary cinematography and score.
The most obvious cinematographic choice is to make the film in a 4:3 ratio. It beautifully mirrors the photography of the film and like The Lighthouse it creates a framing of the landscape of the characters that is both restrictive and revelatory. Remarkably, this is only the fourth feature filmed by cinematographer Maria Von Hauswolff. It rivals some of the best work by veterans of the field. It is a cliche to say that you could freeze frame any shot and have a painting to put on the wall, but it is applicable in this case. It displays a true love, fear, and respect for the land.
The score by Alex Zhang Hungtai is perfectly attuned to the film. Hungtai is from Canada and Taiwan and brings an ethereal experimentation that is reminiscent as well of Jonny Greenwood’s best work. He has scored several other films, but this may be his best.
It also must be mentioned that Hlynur Pálmason is pulling from rich Scandinavian cinematic history. There are the twin titans of Ingmar Bergman and Carl Theodor Dreyer looking down on this film. I would like to think that they have a wry smile of pleasure to see modern filmmakers exploring many of the same themes that they repeatedly examined.
Available to stream on the Criterion Channel or to rent on other platforms
Written by: Gareth Jones
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