“Land of the Gods” – the film that should have won the Palme d’Or

There are always two festivals at Cannes: the Festival of Stars and the competition for the Palme d’Or… and a festival of other sections, where directors often come across younger or less well-known to the general public. Also there we often find cinematic nuggets with a unique look.

One of the most beautiful films of Cannes this year is Danish-Icelandic and not very talkative. The action takes place in 19th century Iceland.e century, lasts two hours and twenty-three minutes and is called Godland. Having said that, the experience may seem dry, but this gripping epic that sits between a survival movie and a historical drama is anything but boring. Selected in the Un Certain Regard section, he failed to compete for the palm branch. Nevertheless, it is a major work, the stunning beauty of which would undoubtedly earn him an award in an official competition.

At the end of the 19the century, a young Danish priest named Lukas (Elliott Crossett Howe) travels to Iceland, still under Danish rule, to help build a church and photograph the local population. But before he gets there, he will have to overcome rough seas and then cross the country on horseback, surrounded by people who do not speak his language and seem to have little respect for him. An exhausting journey that will test his faith and morality.

Inspired by photographs from the 19th centurye century, found in perfect condition, director Khlinur Palmason tried to imagine the context in which they were filmed. The story he fabricates is the story of the slow moral decay of a man of faith who, pushed to the limit, finds himself unable to live up to his ideals. “Morality was never the word I thought of”the director notes, they met in Cannes. “I didn’t even want to include it in the synopsis because it’s not the word I’m used to. But I wanted to show someone who had ideals, who is gradually being destroyed and exposed.”

Survival in a colonial context

What is the first thing that catches your eye Godland, this is his sublime photography and his staging, as refined as it is unforgiving. Shot in a square format reminiscent of photographs of that era, the film is filled with majestic Icelandic landscapes, captured in all their formidable beauty by cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff. The climate there is sometimes unforgiving, and characters develop in cold, mud, wind or rain… even if, as the director notes, “It’s not a cruel winter.” In moments of calm, magical light transforms landscapes, “but in the heart of the wild it’s tiring and scars”Khlinur Palmason explains.

The first part of the feature film, almost silent, thus resembles a film about survival in hostile terrain, a quest both physical and spiritual of the same caliber as Lost City Z, Wildor Terror. “We made a pact with the devil or with the weather god”the director says. “We were lucky because at the beginning of filming we had heavy rain, the rivers were flooded. It was great and set the tone for the film.”

Tasked with documenting his journey with the heavy and unwieldy camera successor to the daguerreotype, Lucas harbors a growing dislike for this untamed nature of glaciers, rocky plains and erupting volcanoes. But also in front of other members of the expedition, much more serene than he is in this primitive context.

Icelandic “There will be blood”

Not only the elements are inhospitable. Godland. The priest’s fellow travelers also seem to have little sympathy for our protagonist (who, admittedly, is not very sociable). His only ally is a translator, because Lucas only speaks Danish and struggles to communicate with the men who accompany him. The most impenetrable of them is Ragnar, a rude and pragmatic Icelander who laughs at him at the first meeting.

Thus, at the beginning of the journey, Ragnar proposes to cut in two a huge wooden cross, which the priest brought with him to unload the horses. This turbulent starting point will form one of the film’s central conflicts, which in many ways resembles the conflicting relationship between Daniel Plainview and Eli the priest in There will be blood (a title that would also work great for Godland). Asked about the relationship, the director says he’s flattered: “I do not hide that [Paul Thomas Anderson] is one of the directors I admire the most. […] If my work was influenced by his work, then it is probably unconscious, but it is a huge compliment.

What seems to fuel the priest’s resentment is that Ragnar, toss and turn, is not devoid of spirituality. He maintains a close connection with nature and meditates every morning barefoot on the grass, doing the exercises of Jörgen Peter Müller, a Danish physical education teacher. “It’s a very old sport that was played a lot in Iceland” explains Hlinur Palmason. “I remember my grandfather doing it in the pool in front of everyone, and it seemed very strange to me.”

Lukas, off balance on these unfriendly Icelandic plains, indignantly watches Ragnar, who seems so at ease in his surroundings. “Rather than being vulnerable or admitting he needs Ragnar’s help and being grateful to him, he still clings to the fact that he’s in charge and knows best”, analyzes lead actor Elliott Crossett Howe, for whom the director wrote the film. “At first, he tries in every possible way to hide his humanity. He hides behind the fact that he is very educated. He comes with the voice of God, which symbolizes truth. So he thinks that he is necessarily right, but we gradually take that away from him. As the film progresses, his main antagonist will be Ragnar the Bearded Icelander – unless Lucas himself is also an antagonist.

Imperfect Hero

At the very beginning of the film, Lucas, trying to learn a few Icelandic words, says to his translator: “I am a man and a priest.” We don’t see him as a priest during the film, but his humanity, in all its weakest and most fallible form, is well and truly brought out. The further the film progresses, the more the imperfection of the hero is revealed. He is frail, does not tolerate boating well, and falls to his knees from exhaustion just minutes after arriving in Iceland.

Landing with a sense of superiority, Lucas gradually realizes that he is actually surrounded by better men than himself. “I really sympathize with him,” says Elliot Crossett Howe. “I love him because he is so human, so imperfect, but he tries to hide it. […] When it finally breaks, we can finally get to know it a little better, see what it’s really made of.

The film constantly plays up the contrasts of modern Denmark and ancient Iceland, the sophistication of Lucas and the rudeness of Ragnar. It also beautifully illustrates the many paths that can lead to spirituality outside of religion: from nature to traditional songs, through intimate relationships with animals that play as important a role as humans in the film. The director explains that he knew all the animals crossed in Godland: “I wanted to depict animals as I see them around me. I shot where I live, so I had a strong connection with them. The dog in the film belongs to my wife’s aunt. […] I know what they are capable of, so I write roles for them. […] The horse was very important at that time, it was a friend, an ally. Today we are probably a little less close to animals, less close to death.

Subscribe to Slate Newsletter

This direct connection with death, which will shake the confidence of the priest, is omnipresent in Godland. In one of the most visually stunning scenes, we watch one of the film’s horses rot away over the years on a desert plain. “The rotting horse is my father’s horse, and I filmed it rotting for two years”says Hlinur Palmason. “By the way, I still shoot it, but today it has turned into flowers and grass.” Turning death into flowers and cruelty into poetry is exactly what Godland, which will undoubtedly remain one of the most beautiful films of the year and to which we wish great success.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.