Think back, if you can, to that odd extended prelude with which the Icelandic writer-director Hylnur Pálmason opened his 2019 thriller A White, White Day. Not many emergent filmmakers would think to announce themselves with a wordless, locked-off shot, charting in timelapse the effects of nature upon a weather station in the middle of nowhere - but then there are clearly very few filmmakers keener to nail down the specifics of time and place than Pálmason, something his latest Godland confirms from the outset. Operating on an altogether grander period canvas, this exceptional follow-up claims to be in the business of extrapolation, an opening title card insisting that the film we are about to watch was inspired by seven wet plate photographs taken of Iceland's southeastern coast by a Danish priest in the late 19th century. Instantly, we wonder what story they have to tell, how they were captured, and how they were stumbled across again. That the photographs never existed outside of Pálmason's imagination hardly matters; both the mind and camera are set racing.
As the film's own cleric, the upright (and, as it proves, damnably uptight) Father Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove) heads north to scout the territory on which a new church is to be built, Godland shapes up as pure adventure movie, as well as a reckoning with Iceland's myriad idiosyncrasies. The lashing rain, and the many local words for it; the deranging, near-permanent daylight; the active volcanos, bubbling away on a distant horizon. One wrinkle is our non-rugged, hardly dashing hero. Philosophically at least, Lucas bears some resemblance to the pompous Stig Helmer, the Swedish surgeon driven to distraction by Danish mores in Lars von Trier's The Kingdom. Like Helmer, Lucas arrives an outsider on foreign shores, where he proves baffled and exasperated by the locals' earthy rationality; like Helmer, he will eventually be found bellowing his native language into the void in a desperate, not to mention comical attempt to impose himself and his faith on a place that was ticking along perfectly fine without him, and will continue to do so long after he's departed this earthly realm. Yet crucially, for Pálmason's purposes, he's a fresh pair of eyes, through which the film can survey this land anew. What it finds there, as signalled by an early cutaway of an earthworm taking root in some horse droppings, is a funny, ripe, primordial sort of life.
Godland goes on to highlight several of the most astonishing vistas you'll see inside a cinema all year, but it views them askance or in passing, following the gaze of a lofty protagonist who can never quite bring himself to acknowledge what these Icelanders have on their front doorsteps - it's not cine-tourism in the conventional sense. For starters, the movie's shot in an Academy ratio with curved corners, forcing Pálmason and hardy cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff to think photographically. (Everything's a potential snapshot, but Lucas only has the silver to preserve seven.) You sense Pálmason filming the north as Kelly Reichardt did the West in Meek's Cutoff: as perilous uncharted territory, with room enough to develop (here, in multiple senses) but also unseen threats out of frame and underfoot. The early scenes, largely dialogue-free and reliant on Alex Zhang Hungtai's fearlessly atonal score, also set me in mind of There Will Be Blood, with its sense of a gradual descent into a very specific mire: Pálmason holds his shots, and holds back anything so banal as a plot, long enough for the chill, the damp and the isolation to start seeping into our bones, too.
That said, though this camera is fond of executing such movements as a slow pull back to reveal Lucas's travelling party as dots (or blots?) on the landscape, and a 360-degree pan that shruggingly notes these figures trudging into and then out of the frame, we do find ourselves intrigued by the film's human elements. (Even if, at first, it's just to fret that these actors, wringing glacier water from their boots and socks, will surely catch a death of cold.) It's Crosset Hove's unhappy traveller, tamped down inside his cassock and sent out on what anybody with a working knowledge of religion in Iceland will know is a fool's mission, helplessly watching as one of his party is swept away by a rapid current to their death; it's his grizzled guide Ragnar (Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson, held over from A White, White Day), doing shirtless morning calisthenics, and appearing for all the world as if he's been carved from the same granite as the mountains around him. Like figures in a photograph, these characters quickly become inextricable from their surrounds. When Lucas and Ragnar come to blows on a craggy, tide-slicked shore late on, they are as fish who've only just found their feet.
That's a rare burst of action here, foreshadowed by a far jollier midfilm wrestling bout after the pair finally arrive at their destination. Mostly, Godland charts a measured gaining of ground, voyaging from one photo opp to the next, and in so doing recalibrating the growing disillusionment of Father Lucas, bogged down in a kind of spiritual mission creep. That backdrop, as Pálmason must have realised growing up in this corner of the world, is almost all the drama one needs: haughtily indifferent to the continued survival of all those who set foot upon it, possessed of risk enough to send these Johnny-come-latelies a terrible cropper at any moment. Each turn of the road, however, serves to underline this filmmaker's mastery of various modes: the epic quest that occupies the first hour; the domestic dramas of Godland's midpoint, as women enter the frame, everybody wrestles mentally with what the church might actually bring to the locals' lives, and Lucas realises he, as much as anyone else, is covered in sin; and a final movement that returns us where A White, White Day began.
Any gaps or layovers en route have been finessed by considerable, immersive imagination. Evident thought has been applied to the matter of what life must have been like on a Tuesday afternoon in a small foothill community as the closing years of the 19th century played out: how people passed an abundance of time, got from here to there, and regarded themselves and others, their lives and prospects. Thought, too, as to how to avoid tepid period staidness; the jagged people and places help, but this roaming camera shows just as great an interest in dogs and bugs as it does folks and rocks. Godland confirms Pálmason as a major talent, because it goes some distance around and beyond its original brief, seeming to contain within it not just the origin of seven photographs (fictional as they might be), but the roots of all photography (a desire to see and show the world), and sublimated traces of several key imagemakers, from Muybridge and Dreyer to Herzog, Tarr and Snow. Pálmason could now, you sense, go anywhere and do anything and come back with something to marvel at; his film feels like a reinvention of the cinema, at exactly the point the cinema most direly requires reinventing. Godland has the thrill of discovery about it.
Godland is now playing in selected cinemas, and is also available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema.