HViolence is turned into beauty and then terror in this extraordinary film from Icelandic director Hlynur Pálmason about a 19th-century Danish pastor sent to establish a new church on Iceland’s remote southeast coast. I left the cinema dazed and delighted by its artistry; it is breathtaking in its epicness, magnificent in its understanding of the landscape, deeply uncomfortable in its human intimacy and severity. There is such a sense of composition in the still life paintings and the almost archaeological sense of time, creating something deeply mysterious and unbearably sad. There are echoes of Aguirre by Werner Herzog, The Wrath of God, The Mission by Roland Joffé, Jauja by Lisandro Alonso — and even Howard Hawks’ Red River.

Pálmason announces in the opening credits that the story was inspired by the supposed discovery of Iceland of seven glass plate photographs of people and places taken in the late 19th century. While the claim is deadpan fiction, its screen has an almost square 1.33:1 aspect ratio, perhaps in honor of the still photography motif. This smaller size, at odds with the film’s CinemaScope ambition and spectacle, lends density to the viewing experience.

Elliott Crosset Hove plays Lucas, a high-strung young clergyman assigned by his bishop to travel to a pioneer community in Iceland (then a Danish dependency), oversee the building of the church, and set himself up as parish priest. Lucas makes this arduous journey first by sea and then by land with horses, carrying a huge and heavy cross in his luggage, climbing mountains and crossing rivers with it. But Lucas has a secular-ethnographic project to accompany the imperial Christian mission: he dreams of taking the first photos there, of capturing people with new technologies. His bulky tripod goes on his back, its three spiked feet pointing behind his head, a version of the spikes of a crucifix. The camera is Lucas’ ordeal as he visits his Stations of the Cross.

Driven to the brink of madness by hardship and physical pain, Lucas has a thwarted friendship – or something more – with his translator (Hilmar Gudjónsson), and finally finds an erotic connection with Anna (Vic Carmen Sonne), the daughter from the local parishioner. , who welcomes him. But his life is dominated by his cantankerous and contemptuous Icelandic guide Ragnar, a tough, weather-beaten veteran played formidably by Ingvar Sigurdsson, the cop of Pálmason’s previous film A White, White Day. Palmasón shows Lucas to be humanized and perhaps even redeemed by his encounters at the end of the journey, particularly his relationship with his quasi-host, the poised widower Carl (a wisely judged performance by Jacob Lohmann), who is stunned by the self-harm of Lucas. decision to come to Iceland in the hardest way possible, then suspicious of his potential designs on his eldest daughter. Anna’s younger sister, Ida (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir), has an appealing emollient role, and her relationship with Lucas is sweet and sweet and brings out what Lucas is closest to warmth.

The most powerful figure in the film is the relentless Ragnar. Far from helping Lucas in the field, Ragnar embodies him; he is the very personification of his hostility. As an Icelander, he hates the overbearing Dane with his learning from books. Lucas comes to hate and fear him by turns. And yet Pálmason shows that Ragnar softens imperceptibly even as he sabotages Lucas; he needs someone to confess his dread of God to while exorcising a life of buried rage. In Godland, these emotions are projected into a stunning and intimidating landscape, accompanied by breathtakingly beautiful choral music. This stark, square screen feels like a window into a vast, unfathomable world.

Godland hits theaters and Curzon Home Cinema on April 7.