Icelandic filmmaker Hlynur Pálmason and cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff have created a film that is epic in scale and beauty, reminiscent of Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr. “Godland,” tells the story of a 19th-century Danish priest who is tasked by his bishop to build a church and establish a parish in a remote corner of Iceland. The journey over land proves arduous as mother nature and man’s obstinacy make the trek unbearable. Salvation is nowhere to be found in the stunning film, ten years in the works.

“So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation.”– Peter 2:1-25

One wonders, if anyone in Pálmason’s film, including Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove), the young priest at the center of the story, is familiar with the bible quote. For one thing, the idealistic cleric is a narcissist, choosing to make the journey on horseback and foot, exposing his crew to the elements, rather than sail to the rural destination just so he can photograph the land and meet the people. There is, however, no one to meet on the isolated Icelandic island they must traverse through snow, over mountains, and across rivers, with the threat of a volcano looming in the distance. Men will perish for the parish but rarely at the hands of the harsh environment.

Before leaving Denmark, the Bishop (Waage Sandø) instructs Lucas to “Adapt to the circumstances of the country and its people” while reminding him how the Apostles were sent to preach to the world, the whole world, and everyone in it. Despite language and cultural barriers, they accomplished their mission. Lucas, however, won’t even take the time to learn the Icelandic language, choosing instead to rely on his translator (Hilmar Guðjónsson) to get by. The men are close, very close, as Pálmason suggests there may be something going on between the two.

The group’s Icelandic guide and builder Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurdsson), a simple man who’s worked hard his whole life, doesn’t like Lucas, who he calls a “Danish devil.” He views the young priest as arrogant and weak, and most viewers will agree with that assessment. Lucas berates Ragnar constantly, not realizing the Nordic island native is the crew’s VIP.

They eventually reach their destination but not without serious setbacks. Lucas is taken in by a widowed farmer named Carl (Jacob Hauberg Lohmann) who is raising two daughters, Anna (Vic Carmen Sonne), an adult, and her young sister Ida (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir), an inquisitive juvenile whose honest but impolite nature reflects her age.

Carl is Danish, lucky for Lucas as the farmer’s youngest daughter becomes his translator when dealing with Ragnar and the locals building the wooden church. As time passes Carl, a good judge of character, sees Lucas, like Ragnar, as a man with no conviction, and he forbids his marriable daughter Anna to get involved with the preacher. It may be too late as the two have been spending a significant amount of time with each other.

Further distancing himself from the local community, Lucas refuses to marry a young couple in the unfinished church. When Carl asks, “Why couldn’t you marry these poor creatures?” Lucas responds the church is only half-finished. Carl remarks, “You are an odd one” and walks away in disgust.

There are plenty of horrific moments in “Godland” which are heightened by Alex Zhang Hungtai’s ominous score, the perfect accompaniment to Pálmason’s stunning achievement. The cast is superb, especially Ingvar Sigurdsson as Ragnar. Both Sigurdsson and Crosset Hove worked with the writer-director on his previous two features.

The film opens with a title segment that explains a wooden box was found in Iceland, with seven wet plate photographs taken by a Danish priest. The images are the very first photos of the southeast coast which inspired the film. This explains the boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio used by Pálmason who rounds off the edges to give the film a living photograph look. Shot in 35mm by cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff, “Godland” is a cinematic achievement that once again reminds us, without humility, there is no salvation.

(4 stars)

Catch the final screening of the film Thursday, April 13 at the Texas Theatre

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Joe Friar head and shoulders

Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.