Godland - Hubris Challenged in Epic of Environmentalism and Colonialism
Shawn Gouralnik, President, Radio FWD
(Photo: TIFF/Hlynur Pálmason)
Directed by: Hlynur Pálmason
Starring: Elliott Crosset Hove, Ingvar Sigurðsson, Vic Carmen Sonne, Jacob Hauberg Lohmann, Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir, Waage Sandø, Hilmar Guðjónsson
The story of Danish colonialism in Iceland was likely unfamiliar to most people entering the screening at the Scotiabank IMAX theater during this year’s TIFF. The general story of colonialism however, is often similar across the world. In Canada, we are intimately familiar with the role of the Catholic church perpetuating crimes against First Nations peoples in Residential School systems. India’s history with British colonialism has been covered in films like 2022’s RRR, a Tollywood epic detailing the story of two revolutionaries in the 1920s who are combating British repression.
In Godland, Danish colonialism is of a different breed. It is not racially motivated or charged with the grander ambitions of an empire or domination. Instead, the story follows Lucas, a Danish Lutheran priest who has been tasked with building a church on Icelandic soil. Equipped with a wet-plate camera setup, Lucas takes the long way around to his destination and sets off to brace the harsh conditions of Iceland and meet the people of the land. His faith is routinely tested, and Lucas faces a number of increasingly soul-destroying challenges, including language barriers, barren wastelands, and extreme weather events. However, we get a completely different aura from the Icelandic inhabitants. Lucas is guided by native Icelander Ragnar, a seemingly simple-minded man who tells campfire stories and keeps to himself.
Director Hlynur Pálmason creates a desolate landscape which acts as both judge and executioner of Lucas’ mental limits. The isolation that the Icelandic environment generates seeps through the screen, as we see Lucas slowly lose control over the course of the film. His sole comfort in his camera equipment echoes the sort of posts you tend to see on social media today. The best moments in someone’s life tend to be the ones captured on camera, but for Lucas, the camera provides a temporary escape from the bombardment of obstacles the environment presents him. The film’s 4:3 aspect ratio further amplifies the isolation, limiting the film camera to tight, claustrophobic shots, which seem impossible given the arid, vast landscapes of the Icelandic tundra.
The closer Lucas gets to his destination and to completing his colonialist goals, the further it seems he strays from his faith and mission. Lucas frequently becomes angry, taking out his aggression onto the native Icelandic nomads who guided his journey. He becomes both physically and mentally isolated, withdrawing from conversations (which he can’t have anyways, as he does not speak the language).
Palmason’s world of Godland is unforgiving, treacherous, and desolate. The characters are either indifferent to these conditions, or are broken by its power. The film intimately familiarizes the viewer with Lucas’ intentions and desires, and are compelled to wonder how long it would take before they too would become like Lucas. The environmental undertones are prominent through stunning shots of Lucas’ journey, which slowly unravel into spiraling reveals which were some of the most beautiful shots I’d seen at the festival. If possible, find this movie at the theater, and allow Godland to eat you whole. Just don’t let it break you, too.