This article appeared in the January 26, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

Godland (Hlynur Pálmason, 2022)

Films from Aguirre, the Wrath of God to Zama have taught us that supposedly civilized men are destined to break when stranded in unspoiled terrain. Hlynur Pálmason’s Godland investigates this phenomenon with finesse, accumulating snapshots from a missionary’s trek through the Icelandic hinterlands during the late 19th century into an exquisite portrait of desolation. The young Danish priest at the heart of the film, Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove), looks to have emerged from a Munch painting, his face growing increasingly agonized as Pálmason’s sprawling script throws blow after blow at him.

Godland is broken up into two halves: the first documents Lucas’s trudge across Iceland, and the second chronicles his maladjustment into a small seaside community. Despite being told to sail directly to the Danish settlement where he’s expected to inaugurate a church, Lucas opts to be dropped off on the opposite side of the island to photograph and familiarize himself with the local people and customs. Lucas is less heroic explorer and more obnoxious imposer: he refuses to participate in his companions’ campfire exchanges, and delights in reminding his escorts that he’s always right because God is on his side. The consequences are more dire when he ignores the suggestions of his guide, Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurdsson), to tread lightly through icy waters and rocky mountains: Lucas’s hubris leads to the death of his best friend. Shot by DP Maria von Hausswolff with a clinical eye, Godland astutely examines the eternal failure of colonial projects wherein self-absorbed outsiders are tasked with getting to know the world beyond themselves.

Nicolas Pedrero-Setzer is a Mexican-American film writer and programmer based in Brooklyn, NY.