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Godland (Vanskabte Land)

Director – Hlynur Pálmason – 2022 – Denmark, Iceland – Cert. tbc – 138m

***1/2

Winter is coming. In the late nineteenth century, a Danish priest who is also an amateur photographer travels to an Icelandic island to oversee the construction of a church before Winter comes – plays in the BFI London Film Festival 2022 which runs from Wednesday, October 5th to Sunday, October 16th in cinemas and on BFI Player.

The late nineteenth century. Lutheran priest Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove) meets with his Church of Denmark bishop regarding his forthcoming ministry to a remote village in Iceland where he is to oversee the construction of a church building before the harsh winter sets in. While that’s his official, designated task, the young man being something of an enthusiast for the newly emerging art of photography decides to take a camera and tripod with him to document his journey, and to this end, rather than take the simplest, safest and quickest route to his destination, he resolves to travel cross-country. (Although the film is a work of fiction, it was inspired by an actual series of photographs taken on a similar journey around this period.) He is allocated an Icelandic guide Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurðsson) to accompany him.

Lucas’ obsession with the newly emerging art form, specifically the collodion wet place process which replaced the better known daguerrotype (seen in Daguerrotype, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2016) around 1860, and his mastery of its techniques, is at odds with his lack of spiritual nous. Many of his images are formal group compositions of the people alongside whom he is travelling to or later living in the village, requiring lengthy exposures (and the subjects remaining motionless for the duration). The rigour of these static moments, followed by Lucas’ necessary disappearance under a lightproof hood to develop the images on his successive wet plates, contrast with his lack of competence as a traveller, for instance falling off his horse into the water during a river crossing. He is both fascinated by the visual possibilities of the landscape and seemingly incapable of dealing with the process of travelling through such an inhospitable environment.

Once he arrives at his destination, he faces opposition from Ragnar, not least because Lucas is attracted to Ragnar’s daughter. Ragnar’s attitude to the organised religion represented by the priest is less than sympathetic.

The same cameraperson Maria Von Hausswolff that director Pálmason previously employed on his extraordinary A White, White Day (2019) once again brings a very controlled feel to what can only be described as a heavy formalism. The film is framed in the old 4:3 Academy ratio (think: old televisions) with rounded corners, recalling old photographs, and whenever the camera moves its movement seems to be very deliberate in much the same way that Lucas’ static compositions are carefully planned and executed to produce the desired result. If the earlier film on occasion demonstrated a similar formality, this one pushes such a sensibility to a much more extreme aesthetic which seems to permeate every moment of the film, whether a static shot of a mobile one.

And yet, for me, this newer film didn’t engage me in the way the earlier one did. The gruelling travels of the first reel or so, shot in a manner that shows them as something dispassionately observed rather than attempting to involve or immerse the audience in it – rather like the experience of setting up a portrait photograph and going through the lengthy, slow exposure period – may well try the patience of the audience. Once the geographical destination is reached, however, the film, while no less rigorous in form or execution, somehow becomes easier to watch. Horses play a large part, not least when Lucas’ horse goes missing, and towards the end there’s a powerful sequence in which a horse’s corpse is seen in increasingly white, snowy and cold winter conditions which give way to the green ground of spring.

A singular and most peculiar film.

Godland plays Sunday, October 9th in the BFI London Film Festival 2022 which runs from Wednesday, October 5th to Sunday, October 16th in cinemas and on BFI Player.

Trailer:

LFF 2022 Trailer:

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