Woman at War
2019, NR, 101 min. Directed by Benedikt Erlingsson. Starring Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, Jóhann Sigurðarson, Juan Camillo Roman Estrada, Davíð Þór Jónsson, Magnús Trygvason Eliassen, Ómar Guðjónsson.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 5, 2019
Serious and comic at the same time, the immensely likable Icelandic film Woman at War is a human-scaled superhero story. In his second feature film, director Benedikt Erlingsson (Of Horses and Men) gives us a protagonist of deep moral conviction whose dual lives as a secret eco-terrorist and reputable choir director come to a head when some external matters from the past re-emerge and force her to reassess her decisions, past and present.
A dialogue-free stretch opens the film as we observe Halla (Geirharðsdóttir) alone in an unpopulated area of the mossy Icelandic highlands. Armed with a bow and arrow, in a pose that calls to mind the mythic Greek goddess Artemis, she takes aim at the electrical wires above. However, not until we see the blackout it causes at a nearby aluminum smelting plant do we understand Halla’s objective. She is an eco-terrorist who wishes to harm the multinational corporations she sees as plundering her country’s natural resources and unique beauty. Is Halla really an Artemis, we begin to wonder, or merely a Don Quixote tilting her arrow at electrical power lines as if they were windmills?
Halla must also deal with her motives when an old possibility from the past becomes suddenly viable. She must wonder if her political actions stem from emotions that were displaced when she relinquished hope four years earlier when her first dream was quashed. About 50 years old, Halla lives in a middle-class apartment that has pictures of Gandhi and Mandela hanging on the walls, and signs her manifestos as the Mountain Woman. She has a twin sister Ása (also played by Geirharðsdóttir, one of Iceland’s top actresses, who is spectacularly good), who teaches yoga and is about to depart for an ashram in India where she plans to meditate in silence for two years. One sibling wants to take radical actions to improve her environment, the other wants to create betterment from within. Yet is either one on a divine path? Notably, the twin-sister hook eventually plays a valuable role in resolving this unpredictable narrative.
Then there’s the music. Oddly, it’s performed live within the diegetic space of the film image, even though none of the characters can see or hear the performers. At first, there’s just a three-man combo playing drums, tuba, and accordion or sometimes piano. Later, they are interspersed with a Ukrainian choral group of costumed female folk singers. These groups seem to be a manifestation of Halla’s emotions, or maybe they’re a Greek chorus speaking to their Artemis. The music adds a comical touch and a constant awareness of the artifice of movies and the ways in which human beings are often guided by feelings that are just out of reach. Despite its probe of deep moral questions, Woman at War (a multiple award winner on the festival circuit as well as having been Iceland’s entry for Oscar consideration last year) maintains a light feel and concludes with a sense of uplift as we watch human beings forge ahead despite the floodwaters rising around them. The tide is up to their kneecaps but they soldier on until they reach the end of their song.