Intertitles at the beginning of the new Danish-Icelandic film “Godland” inform that wet-plate photos were found in Iceland and represent the earliest visual documentation of the island’s southeast. We are also told that a Danish priest was the source of these examples of one of the oldest types of photography, and that these found photos serve as the inspiration for the movie we’re about to see. It’s an intriguing premise — even if it turns out not to be true.
The priest, Lucas, arrives in Iceland after an expository opening scene where he is reminded of his duty by another man of the cloth: to build and establish a church at one of the island’s Danish settlements, and to be wary of Iceland’s many treacherous climatic and geographic features. Accompanying him as he traverses mountains and rivers to get to the community are a translator, several helpers and horses, and a guide named Ragnar.
From the start, Ragnar exhibits animosity in the priest’s presence, going so far as to call him a “Danish devil,” though it’s unclear if Lucas understands what is said exactly. The clash of these two characters and what they represent — the learned, faithful man versus the laboring, practical one — gives the filmmakers one of several tensile strings from which they weave their story.
There are other instrumental characters, not least of which is the landscape of Iceland itself. Through outstanding photography, director Hlynur Pálmason and his cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff envelop the viewer in a world of treeless plains, boggy riverine shores, forbidding cliffs, lonely waterfalls, and so much more natural yet ominous beauty. Lucas even says at one point that the island is “terribly beautiful” and is reminded that “terrible” is the operative word in that phrase.
Mr. Pálmason and Ms. von Hausswolff use a filmic aspect ratio that mirrors the quaint, round-cornered photographs of old while still retaining a sense of widescreen wildness — no easy feat. The centrality of their compositions, with the main focus of the shot usually at the very middle of the visual plane, appropriately aligns with the priest’s steadfast, and at times arrogant, state of mind. There are also two 360-degree pans, one of a vast expanse and the other at a wedding celebration, that harness this technique to create both awe and intimacy.
The priest’s fixed temperament will lead him to lose his translator, almost lose his mind, and, in the end, to lose everything, though he does try to adapt to local customs once he arrives at the settlement. There, he meets a young woman named Anna, the daughter of a wealthy widower, and she and Lucas embark on a tentative romance as the church is being built, providing a respite from the tragedy the movie hints at from the start.
While it’s inevitable, the violence that appears twice in the last half-hour is still shocking and even a little unbelievable. For all its mythic evocations of man against nature, the movie is ultimately more concerned with the man versus man equation, and rightly so, some would say. This viewer, though, wishes Mr. Pálmason had found a way to allow for confrontation without brutality, aggression without death, as he does in his portrayal of two harmless wrestling matches.
Of course, themes of subjugation and the rigidness of religion are invoked, much as they were in somewhat similar movies like Roland Joffé’s “The Mission” and even Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.” But “Godland” is its own creation, especially when it’s concerned with Iceland’s hostile, unforgiving terrain, and its inherently unwelcoming weather.
Since the movie had its premiere at Cannes last year, Mr. Pálmason has admitted that he made up the old photos discovery story. Conjuring up these “found photos” helped him while he was writing the script, and one can’t fault him because not only did it inspire a provocative narrative but it was also a striking way of framing late 19th century Icelandic life. Ultimately, though, the images win out. The matching of disturbing scenic imagery with an eerie soundtrack and the occasional strange tale told or sung by the characters says more than any plot point can.