The title of the film Godland appears twice on screen during the opening credits: first in Danish, and then in Icelandic. It’s an unsubtle, but effective signal from writer-director Hlynur Pálmason that a contrast between these two Scandinavian nations and their cultures will be a primary concern.
Godland is set in the late 19th century, when Iceland was still ruled by Denmark. (It did not completely separate until 1944.) It’s also when the new technology of photography was spreading throughout the world, so when a Lutheran cleric named Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove) is charged with establishing a church on the island, he brings his cumbersome camera equipment on the arduous journey.
Arduous doesn’t quite cover it, in fact. After making landfall, Lucas, his translator (Hilmar Guðjónsson), and their Icelandic traveling companions must make a treacherous horseback trek to the barren, sparsely populated southeastern shore. The party is led by Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurðsson), a grizzled, gruff outdoorsman who barely tolerates the bookish, sincere priest.
The torturous travel reveals Lucas to be something of a watered-down, Lutheran version of the madman Lope de Aguirre as played by Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God. (Which, coincidentally, is playing from March 10-16 at the Academy Theater.) The language barrier, especially when the translator isn’t around, only adds to the tension, especially during Lucas’s frequent stops to set up his camera and capture the landscape. (The film claims to be inspired by seven photographs discovered in southeastern Iceland that have been judged the oldest surviving pictures of the island, and the laborious wet-plate process of photography is as fascinating to watch today as it is frustrating for Ragnar.)
Things get even more interesting when the priest arrives at his destination, a hamlet centered on the homestead of a farmer named Carl (Jacob Hauberg Lohmann) and his two daughters Anna (Vic Carmen Sonne) and Ida (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir, the director’s daughter). The second half of Godland becomes more reminiscent of another epic drama about religious missionaries toting their faith into hostile terrain: Martin Scorsese’s Silence.
That’s not to imply that Pálmason’s film is anything close to as visceral as Scorsese’s. In typically Nordic fashion, passions are pent-up, expressions are stoic, and personal outlooks are as bleak as the slate-grey skies. Still, Lucas is a potent human metaphor for Denmark’s awkward history with its onetime colony. To Americans, all Scandinavian cultures can seem largely uniform, but between and among those cultures, rivalries and historical grievances run deep. (One is reminded of the hysterical acrimony expressed by the Swedish surgeon Stig Helmer toward the Danes in Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom.)
Pálmason uses a squarish Academy aspect ratio, with rounded corners to the frame, giving Godland a visual referent to the primitive photography that inspired it. Cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff pulls off the challenging feat of filming genuinely remote locations (often reachable by cast and crew only on horseback) in crisp 35mm that expertly captures their barren, forbidding splendor.
Although some of its themes are familiar from other cinematic critiques of colonial hubris, the historical specifics, grounded performances, and visual impact of Godland combine to impressive effect. (Opens on Friday, May 10, at Cinema 21)
Another new film that uses cultural detail and compelling acting to refresh well-worn narrative tropes is Moroccan filmmaker Maryam Touzani’s second feature, The Blue Caftan. Shortlisted for this year’s Best International Film Oscar, it’s a modern melodrama crafted with the same precision that its protagonist, the tailor Halim (Saleh Bakri), brings to his embroidery work.
Halim is an old-school holdout, working by hand and using carefully chosen materials to create stunning caftans, including the titular garment, for which one of his customers is growing impatient. He and his wife Mina (the remarkable Lubna Azabal) run their shop in one of the city of Salé’s oldest medinas, but as Mina struggles with a serious illness, Halim hires a young apprentice, Youssef (Ayoub Missioui).
Youssef takes to the precise and demanding work, and Halim obviously takes to Youssef. It’s obvious to us, and it’s obvious to Mina, that Halim is gay, and we later learn that for years he has taken solace in bathhouse assignations. What would be a fatally clichéd twist on a typical heteronormative love triangle is given added potency by Morocco’s legal and religious traditions, both of which brand homosexuality as a punishable sin.
In fact, it’s a fascinating juxtaposition that a country where Article 489 of the penal code mandates between six months and three years in prison for “lewd or unnatural acts with an individual of the same sex” would also submit this film for Academy Award consideration. The screenplay, according to Touzani, was approved for production and was filmed in Salé, and played at the Marrakesh Film Festival last fall. Such is the duality of the Moroccan thing, I suppose. It’s certainly, and thankfully, a far cry from the authoritarian restrictions placed on filmmakers in other parts of the Muslim world.
Like all good melodramas, The Blue Caftan never overplays its hand. (19th-century Icelanders and contemporary Moroccans may not have much in common, but neither are exactly operatic in their emotional expression.) And Touzani deftly steers her characters in and out of predictable predicaments, revealing their innate humanity through small, crucial gestures.
The result is a compelling film that combines respect for the traditions of the past with a refusal to be limited by them. (Opens on Friday, March 10, at Cinema 21).
ALSO THIS WEEK:
Prolific documentarian Jan Haaken debuts her new film, Atomic Bamboozle, on Sunday afternoon, March 12, at Cinema 21. It’s a 50-minute examination of the controversy over so-called small modular reactors (SMRs), which the nuclear industry is developing as a future source of ostensibly clean energy. The people Haaken talks to aren’t so sure, due to the potential for accidents, the economic costs, and the eternal problem of nuclear waste. Haaken, who I interviewed about her previous film Necessity: Climate Justice & the Thin Green Line, which follows efforts to restrict fossil fuel rail shipments in the Columbia Gorge, looks back at the efforts that led to the shutdown of the Trojan power plant in Oregon, and decries the impact of the Hanford nuclear site in eastern Washington on the surrounding ecosystem and the Native Americans who have been displaced and endangered. When it comes to the SMR debate, the presence of a moderate voice attempting to address some of the concerns aired would have been welcome. But, like all her work, Haaken’s latest is an uncompromising piece of activism that’s well-crafted and urgent. (Screens on Sunday, March 12, at Cinema 21, followed by a discussion with the director and several of the film’s interviewees.)
Another issue-oriented documentary with a local connection makes a return to Portland this week with another one-off (for now, at least) screening. I interviewed longtime Portlander and producer Lance Kramer when The First Step screened last year at PAM CUT. In it, longtime progressive activist Van Jones embarks on a campaign to raise bipartisan support for a criminal justice reform bill. (For you kids out there, “bipartisan” refers to an ancient practice whereby members of two political parties could manage to agree on some issues and compromise on the ones they didn’t. Very rarely seen today.) As Jones courts the support of Republicans including Jared Kushner and, yes, Donald Trump, he faces backlash from members of his own community. It’s a fascinating exploration of how, and whether, the political process can function in these divisive times. (Screens on Thursday, March 16, at Cinema 21.)
The 2009 baseball comedy Calvin Marshall, starring Steve Zahn as the coach of a high school team and shot in southern Oregon, is about an underdog player who refuses to quit and succeeds through sheer persistence. That’s not too far removed from the film’s own story as a production that was only possible due to sacrifices by its makers and support from their communities. In a gesture to return the favor, Calvin Marshall will screen in Corvallis on Saturday, March 11, and in Ashland on Monday, March 20, as a fundraiser to support Southern Oregon Baseball. For full details, visit the Joma Films website.
The Clinton Street Theater hosts the 2023 Oregon Documentary Film Festival on Sunday, March 12. Among other treats later in the week is a Tuesday, March 14 screening of the new, autobiographical documentary Paris Calligrammes, in which the deliciously eccentric German director Ulrike Ottinger looks back at her years in 1960s Paris.
The Hollywood Theatre offers a tempting double-feature on Saturday, March 13, of the classic 1953 musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, starring Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe at 3 p.m., followed by Michael Mann’s iconic 1996 crime epic Heat, which features very few gentlemen. (RIP Tom Sizemore.) To be clear, these are separate admissions, but it seems like a fun way to get cinematic whiplash. They’re also showing Close Encounters of the Third Kind on Wednesday, March 15 for an event promoting the release of Michael Avon Oeming and James Tynion IV’s new UFO-centric Dark Horse Comics series Blue Book.
NOTE: The Irish-language Oscar nominee The Quiet Girl opens at Living Room Theaters on March 10. It was initially scheduled to open a couple of weeks ago, which is when my review of it ran. Here’s a refresher.