“I’m full of shit. Pray for me.”
Godland, written and directed by Hlynur Pálmason, has an interesting “inspired by” designation. We’re told that a box of old photographic plates was found in Iceland, and the story is inspired by those early photos. The story that develops from those plates is filled with light and darkness, beauty and shadows.
Lucas (Elliot Crosset Hove), a young Danish priest, is sent to Iceland to build a church in a remote part of the island and photograph its people. Before he goes, the bishop warns him that Iceland is not like Denmark. He is told he will have to adapt to their ways. The bishop reminds him of the Apostles who took the Gospel to all the world.
Rather than going directly to the location of the new church, he lands on the opposite side of the island and sets off with a guide, Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurdsson), and an interpreter on a grueling journey that shows him the ruggedness and the beauty of Iceland. But that journey is more that Lucas anticipated, almost killing him before it’s completed.
He awakens in a farmhouse where the new church is being built. We now begin to see how little attention Lucas paid to the bishop’s instructions. Although many of the people are bilingual, most prefer speaking Icelandic. Lucas doesn’t want to bother learning the language or the customs of the people. He is also very standoffish, not taking part in the building, only watching as others work. He fails to make any real connection with the people, except perhaps the farmer’s elder daughter who was born in Denmark and longs to return.
Lucas’s real passion has been taking pictures, some of people, but most of the “terrible beauty” of the landscape. He is far more concerned about his photography equipment than the large cross that has come with him from Denmark. On the journey, the cross is lost fording a river—a clue to what is going on within Lucas.
At one point Ragnar, who serves as an adversary to Lucas, asks “How can I become a man of God?” This puts the focus on Lucas and his role as a priest, that he does so poorly. There are various religious discussions and acts that come up through the film. The highlight of this is when Ragnar goes through a litany of confessions that increasingly challenge Lucas. In each, Lucas fails to do what we would expect from a priest. He seems to feel privileged because of his ordination, but perhaps more so because he is Danish. We see in him the kind of colonialism that the church has often represented in its missionary work.
Although we expect Lucas to be the one to lead lost souls to God, we see instead that Lucas is the one who is lost. He has lost sight not only of his mission, but of his faith and morality as well.
Photos courtesy of Janus Films.