Woman at War a Small Jewel of a Film

Woman at War (Kona fer i stríö) (2018 film/2019 US release)
Directed by Benedikt Erlingsson
Magnolia Pictures, 101 minutes, Not-rated.
In Icelandic, Spanish, French, English with subtitles.

Woman at War was Iceland’s foreign film entry for the Oscars. It didn’t make the final cut and I suspect that was for two reasons. First, it is a hard to pigeonhole film. It gets called a comedy drama, but its humor is not the sort that Hollywood likes. Instead of broad and obvious, it is understated and offbeat. Second, Hollywood liberalism is always tempered by kowtowing to the moneyed interests that bankroll big budget movies. Woman at War takes on corporations­–and it does on what Hollywood would call a starvation diet of just $3 million. Woman at War is about an eco-activist who battles Iceland’s aluminum industry.

This is also the sort of quirky film that makes independent film such a creative delight–even when they go over the top. Director Benedikt Erlingsson mostly (but not always) strikes a balance between silliness and seriousness. The woman at the film's center is 47-year-old Halla (Halldóra Geirharòsdóttir), independent and single by choice, and a respected choral director who wears her politics on her sleeve. She rides her bike all over Reykjavik rather than owning a car, and her apartment walls are lined with posters of people such as Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. What only her innermost co-conspirators know is that she is also  “Mountain Woman,” an eco-activist who wages war against companies that are not carbon-neutral. In her mind, Iceland’s biggest polluter is Rio Tinto, an aluminum company owned by an English/Australian consortium. Halla wants to bring them down–literally. She shoots tipped arrows across their power lines to bring power and production to a halt. Although it’s not easy to do so, Halla evades would-be captors through a combination of intimate knowledge of Iceland’s southern highlands, commando-style survivalist techniques, help from a farmer, and unexpected luck.

Erlingsson–who also co-wrote the script–tempers his drama with farce. This is Geirharòsdóttir's show, but the secondary characters are a collection of oddballs: a willful farmer who might be Halla's distant cousin, a nervous Parliamentary insider/conspirator, bumbling pursuers, a Spanish tourist (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada), and Halla’s flaky ashram-bound twin sister Asa (also played by Geirharòsdóttir).

There is also a subplot involving a forgotten application. Four years earlier, Halla sought to adopt a Ukrainian refugee and suddenly an adorable five-year-old orphan girl awaits a surrogate mother. Halla’s triple life­–choral director, outlaw, soon-to-be mother–frame the film’s most unusual feature. Erlingsson alerts us that his tale is more fable than reality by inserting musicians directly into key shots. Depending upon what’s at stake, it’s either a sousaphone-led Icelandic band evocative of the off-kilter sounds of Gogol Bordello, or a female trio of a cappella Ukrainian singers in full traditional costume. If that’s not enough disruption of reality for you, the Spanish tourist is a Falstaff figure with a gift for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

A film with this many twisted irons in the fire is bound to get in its own way at times. Woman at War is far from a perfect film. It is, at times, too silly and/or too sentimental. It also relies on some obvious sight gags, and you’ll have to make up your own mind whether the comedy serves or derails the film’s core environmental message. In my mind, though, this is a film with both wit and heart. Geirharòsdóttir is terrific as Halla/Asa, even if the latter character is something of a cartoon figure. She has a wonderfully plastic face that makes her physically convincing as a radiant singer, a determined outlaw, a yoga junkie, or a woman whose soft features are fading as she approaches 50. 

You could also use Woman at War to write a real-life script of the myriad ways in which big companies–and the politicians who let them get away with malfeasance–seek to sway public opinion by discrediting anyone who challenges their dark, cozy deals. A sort of side joke is that Iceland is already among the greenest nations on earth. It hasn’t burned coal since the 1980s and 100% of all consumer electricity comes from hydro (74%) or geothermal (26%) sources. 

I highly recommend this film. Surrender to its jarring surface devices and admire its inventiveness, its soul, and how it makes you think without beating you over the head with its message. If that doesn’t convince you, try this: You won’t forget how deliciously weird it is.

Rob Weir

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