Woman at War

★★★★★

Opening Friday, Mar. 15

In its strange, beautiful way, the Icelandic import Woman at War is a perfect little jewel of a film. It’s the story of a fierce environmental activist who wages a one-woman war against the forces of heavy industry and corporate greed in rural Iceland. But it’s told with humor and grace—a fable-like folk whimsy that evokes the spirit of Loki, that rascally trickster god of the North.

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir plays Halla, a community choir director who moonlights as a badass eco-activist and saboteur. The opening sequence shows her using a bow and arrow—and some crafty know-how regarding electrostatic physics—to take out the massive power pylons despoiling her beloved landscape. The inventive screenplay suggests Halla is channeling the spirit of the land to drive off Iceland’s latest and most lethal invaders: ruthless multinational energy companies. When Halla needs help evading authorities, nature provides a mossy furrow to hide in, an icy stream to mask her scent, or a sheep carcass to foil thermal imaging drones. It gets weird.

It gets even weirder when director Benedikt Erlingsson playfully scrambles the film’s diegetic sounds. The musical score is provided by a trio of Icelandic folk musicians who start popping up in the background, puckishly refusing to stay off-screen. Later, they’re joined by a second trio of Ukrainian singers. It seems like a gimmick, at first, but then the musicians start to interact with Halla and other foreground elements. Are they there? Are they not? Are they spirits?

The phantom musicians introduce a strain of magical realism known as slipstream fiction, deliberately blurring the film’s genre boundaries. Additional narrative flourishes suggest that there are ancient powers at work in Halla’s fate. Mythological shapes start to form around random details regarding Viking gods, Indian ashrams, Mother Earth, and even Tolkien jokes. Meanwhile, the story spins on, folding in more crazy variables: a Ukrainian war orphan, a twin sister, a hapless bicycle tourist. There’s even a satisfying twist at the end. 

In the interest of full disclosure: I’ve fallen in madly love with this movie and am currently in that slaphappy, smitten phase when just thinking about it makes me unreasonably happy. This is a film that takes on serious, maybe even existential crises facing our civilization, but does so in such a strange and disarming way that it’s almost dizzying. It feels like someone knocked me on the head and popped something out of my ear. Then I looked down, and it was a little blob of hope.