“YOU must adapt to the circumstances of the country and its people.” Valuable missionary advice at the start of Godland (Cert. 12A) is easier said than done. Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove), a young pastor, is dispatched from late-19th-century Denmark to Iceland. The problem is that he can’t (or won’t) easily act upon the given guidance.
Hlynur Pálmason’s film takes some time recounting the many dangers, toils, and snares that beset him, as if replicating the arduous journeying itself. Lucas prefers to land on Iceland’s inhospitable south-east coast rather than sail nearer to his ultimate destination, claiming a need to get acquainted with the native people. In reality, he does little to interact with the party of locals directing his way. Admittedly, there are language difficulties, but there is an interpreter, Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurðsson) at hand to assist communication. Lucas seems to prefer using his bulky photography equipment to capture the scenery.
Godland’s opening credits pay tribute to the pioneer photographers of that region. The film itself resembles archival footage inasmuch as it is shot in box-like 1.375:1 Academy ratio. When Lucas does take pictures of people, he bids them stay passive and silent, justifying it on technical grounds. One cannot help feeling that this illustrates the colonial relationship between Iceland and its master. The bringing of a strange religion into their midst while ignoring the richness of indigenous spiritual roots indicates a sense of entitlement on the one hand and suspicion on the other.
Ragnar has every bit as much of an inner life as Lucas, but the former is a great deal more forthcoming about it. The buttoned-up priest doesn’t appear that interested in communicating his own faith or learning about Icelandic beliefs. When Ragnar asks how he can become a man of God, Lucas is quite diffident answering. At the place where the church is being built, he is given hospitality by Carl (Jacob Hauberg Lohmann), and his daughters Anna (Vic Carmen Sonne) and Ida (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir). If Christianity is more likely to be caught when not restricted to just being taught, then Lucas badly fails.
We do get glimpses of his true feelings, usually only after encouragement from his hosts. When he dances with Anna, there is a sense of letting go and letting God. The wrestling match with Ragnar, symbolic of the culture clash, has almost the Jacob-like feel of Genesis 32.22-32). It could be (but was it?) a moment when Lucas saw something of God, who was already in that place he had come to convert. Lucas has so far not adapted to the circumstances of the country and its people. At a wedding feast, he refuses to perform the ceremony because the church is only half-built.
Bruce Reed’s research with the Grubb Institute concluded that successful missionary work relies on the age-old practice of respecting the wisdom and practices of what is there (“folk religion”) and building on it what he called “apostolic religion”. We could learn much from this film about how not to go about that task. Godland works best as a parable about entrusting ourselves to the numinous, however this is manifested.
Godland is released on Good Friday.