“God has the virtue that one can locate Him anywhere at all, in anything at all.” So says the rebel priest in the book, ‘Under The Glacier,’ written by Iceland’s only Nobel Laureate, Halldór Laxness. Published in 1968 as ‘Kristnihald undir Jökli,’ the novel was his first in eight years and became an immediate hit. In her introduction for the English version, Susan Sontag described it as every kind of novel at once and “one of the funniest books ever written.”
The 1989 film adaptation of this mystical story was the debut directorial effort from Laxness’ daughter, Guðný Halldórsdóttir. Despite being based on the work of Iceland’s most acclaimed author, the movie is not celebrated to the same degree as many other films from the era—or even Guðný’s other works, some of the nation’s most beloved comedies.
17 types of cake
The story takes place in Snæfellsnes, at the base of the mythical glacier which shares the peninsula’s name, known universally as the spot where the ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’ began in Jules Verne’s novel of that name. The local priest, Jón ‘Prímus,’ has stopped performing his clerical duties. No masses are held, children go unbaptized and dead bodies remain unburied. Jón mostly acts as a handyman in the community, fixing machines and fitting horseshoes, while the whereabouts of his wife are unknown. To investigate, the bishop of Iceland sends an emissary, whose name is never revealed throughout the film, but is simply referred to as Umbi, a shortened version of the Icelandic word ‘umboðsmaður,’ which is similar to the Nordic ‘ombudsman.’
Umbi quickly learns that the priest’s behaviour is of no concern to the local folk. One is a cake baking woman who never serves fewer than 17 types of cakes at a time. There’s a self-proclaimed poet, who works in transport and obsesses about rosewood. And a wealthy expatriate named Godman Sýngman has built a modernist mansion next to the dilapidated church and means to resurrect the dead with his gang of mystics. Each character is colourful, introduced in style and has clear motivation. In many ways, the Nobel Laureate’s writing style permeates the celluloid.
Clergymen and necromancers
The real mystery is the priest’s wife, Úa. Are the rumours true that she never sleeps, eats or ages? Is her spirit really buried under the glacier in the body of a fish? And what manner of woman is she—a nun, a whore, a mother? The heavy symbolism might make ‘Under The Glacier’ a tough watch for those unfamiliar with the source material. The story is full of magical realism, such as humans taking animal form, and references to folk religion, in which god is nature itself, not just some guy you visit once a week.
Umbi’s quest to make sense of all of this unfolds in beautiful scenery, with the glacier looming over the juxtaposition of the boarded-up church and Sýngman’s villa. The costume design supports the actors’ efforts in bringing their zany characters to life, from clergymen to necromancers. While the score may seem a bit dated now, a montage where the locals fix the church features Thor’s Hammer’s delightful cover of ‘California Dreamin,’ the translated lyrics evoking an Icelandic farm boy dreaming of a tropical beach. All in all, ‘Under the Glacier’ is a thought-provoking adaption, faithful to its uniquely gifted parent.
‘Under the Glacier’ is available at IcelandicCinema.com with English subtitles. The original novel can be found in various online shops in physical, tablet or audio format.
See the film here.