Film Review: Woman at War (2018), Dir. Benedikt Erlingsson
Increasing awareness of Iceland will surely be enhanced by this welcome second feature by Benedikt Erlingsson whose first film Of Horses and Men (2015), was located in Iceland’s austerely beautiful volcanic landscape sparsely sprinkled with small villages of farmers, livestock, and wild horses. It was a love story set among the laconic, rugged country folk. The annual roundup of the much-prized Icelandic horses and their unique communal traditions featured breathtaking cinematography and a fascinating cast of truly odd characters. This film centers on a small town trying to face down big corporate development which threatens it’s natural beauty. Emphatically ugly structures mar their ravishing landscape and threaten their charming way of life.
The unwelcome intrusion is an aluminum factory which is promising the usual benefits to the locals - jobs, opportunity, progress, etc. The opposition has been helped by a pro-ecology group which is directing them on how to effectively derail the project and is being run like the French resistance during WWII, with clandestine meetings on sabotage techniques. The town is full of quirky, colorful characters, the most notable and dedicated being Halla (Halldóra Geirharõsdottir). She is full of surprises and contradictions and is a marvel to watch.
Halla is a mild-mannered, bicycle-riding, middle-aged, single choir mistress by day and eco-terrorist by night. Her Clark Kent-ish exterior hides a radically different alter-ego referred to as Mountain Woman, whose identity is known to only a few comrades-in-arms who are fighting a seemingly losing battle against the factory. Their weapons are primitive and quaint, the most lethal being bows and arrows and dynamite. Halla’s transition from choir mistress to Mountain Woman is wryly punctuated by the unexpected appearance of an idiosyncratic band of three musicians comprised of a tuba, accordion, and drum, and occasionally accompanied by a trio female singers wearing incongruous traditional costumes. This surreal element, presented in a totally deadpan manner, recurring at odd intervals stands in as a clever substitute for a soundtrack. It is and edgy and effective device lending depth to the action.
Mountain Woman is a wiley, intrepid warrior - going stealthily into the rocky barren wilderness, waging a one-woman war against the giant electrical pylons armed only with her fearsome bow and arrows. She shoots her arrows attached to a large roll of steel cable with impressive accuracy in order to short circuit the electricity to the factory. She is a valiant, strategically effective saboteur. But the company is not taking this lying down and most of the villagers, as well as the outside agitators have given up the fight. The factory has become a fait accomplis, which leaves Halla pretty much on her own. As she takes bigger and bigger risks, the opposition is intensifying with helicopters, armed men and dogs. Halla remains stubbornly undeterred.
As the plot kicks in, the film takes a new tack and more complications arise. Halla gets word that a long ago application to adopt a Ukrainian child has been accepted. Torn between her complete absorption in the cause and her dormant hopes for motherhood, she faces a dilemma. At this point the pacing and focus shift radically. New characters appear and Halla suddenly has to go to elaborate lengths to avoid being arrested for her vandalism. A twin sister is introduced as a decoy so she can cross into Ukraine. The movie begins to resemble a spy thriller with close escapes from authorities, falsifyied identities, illegal border crossings, and surreal images of a wasted Ukrainian landscape (perhaps a cautionary reference for Iceland).
Erlingsson effectively weaves together disparate elements in a subtle Python-esque style, with a sly deadpan presentation of both emotional and dramatic moments. He sketches characters with deft Daumier-like economy. Words are minimal. Images are the vocabulary. His images speak volumes. Geirharõsdottir has the same sort of magnetic charisma as Isabel Huppert. It is never less than charming and delightful to watch.
You can watch a trailer for the film here