There’s an old Icelandic proverb that goes, “Never underestimate a woman with a crossbow. Or a circular saw. Or explosives.”
OK, so it’s not an ancient Nordic proverb, but it should be. Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), the protagonist of Benedikt Erlingsson’s loopy yet sobering second feature, Woman at War, is a middle-aged choir conductor by day, and an ageless environmental warrior on nights and weekends and five-minute breaks from her choir. Woke to the issue of anthropogenic climate disruption, her target is an aluminum smelter that’s contributing mightily to the release of CO2 in the atmosphere. She steals explosive material, topples pylons with the efficiency of a SEAL Teamer on a covert mission, and uses her expert skills in archery to disable the plant’s power line.
She commits these felonies with the conviction that she’s on the side of Mother Nature, and sometimes literally in the guise of her freedom-fighting heroes. If there’s a single sequence that summarizes Woman at War, it’s Halla crushing the government spy drone she’s just shot and hauled from the sky, all while wearing a paper mask of a smiling Nelson Mandela.
Our culture idolizes the glamorous scofflaw, sometimes for the wrong reasons; rationally, there’s little to admire in Bonnie and Clyde or Tony Montana. Eco-terrorists, on the other hand, have the moral high ground on their side. In the past 10 years, has there been a more sympathetic prisoner than Megan Rice, the octogenarian Roman Catholic nun who broke into a national security complex in Tennessee and defaced a bunker carrying bomb-grade uranium because it was the godly thing to do?
We applaud Rice and her ilk because we wish we had the courage to do something big and bold and, yes, criminal — to sacrifice our comforts to save a planet we’re gradually destroying. Movies like Brit Marling’s The East, Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves and Paul Schrader’s First Reformed have explored the complex moral calculus of environmental terrorism with stark ambiguity, but the tenor of Woman at War has more in common with Bong Joon-ho’s colorful eco-adventure Okja: There is excitement and humor in the ride, as well as danger and dread. Halla is both a contemporary human, dealing with frailties and doubts, and a fierce folk heroine from collective myth, handling her quiver like an environmental Robin Hood.
Part of this delicate balance is achieved through Erlingsson’s approach, which injects screwball motifs and formal whimsy into proceedings that could have felt tripwire-taut. As the government searches frantically and tirelessly for Halla — who has distributed an anonymous manifesto in which she calls herself the “Mountain Woman” — it continually finds and harasses a hapless Hispanic tourist (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada) instead, a guy with a Giorgio Tsoukalos hairstyle and a Che Guevara shirt, who always happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. His frustrating commentary is presented in untranslated Spanish, but it doesn’t matter; he may as well be a silent-film tramp, bumbling through cosmic misadventures in somebody else’s movie.
Then there’s the film’s score, composed by Davíð Þór Jónsson and played by a trio live on camera. This device is at once disarming and hilarious: We first hear the galumphing, circusy notes from a drummer, pianist and sousaphone player as Halla scampers across a mountain after one of her crimes; all of sudden, there they are, incongruously arranged among the greenery, as in some absurdist plein air rehearsal. In other words, what appears to be a nondiegetic soundtrack is actually a diegetic one (how’s that for a film studies degree coming in handy!).
So it goes throughout the movie, with the players appearing in Halla’s apartment, in a flooded tenement in Ukraine — wherever she happens to be — and the conceit never ceases to delight. The same goes for a trio of choral singers in traditional dress; together with the musicians, they serve as a de facto Greek chorus, commenting through melody and inflection.
But Erlingsson’s most substantial sleight of hand is the double casting of Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir as both Halla and her twin sister, Asa. When Asa, an aspiring guru, is introduced leading a yoga class, we first assume it to be Halla, as if her double life had a third strand. Their identical look will be central to the movie’s developments as the government closes in on Halla, just as her priorities may be starting to shift.
It’s been four years, you see, since Halla and Asa both registered to be adoptive parents, and Halla has just been accepted as the new mother of a war-torn Ukrainian 4-year-old. Trying to save the world one downed power line at a time can be a problem that takes on a new weight when trying to raise a child.
Halla’s twin drives, to be a mother and to protect Mother Earth, reflect the procreative world’s dilemma: Should we be raising a new generation in a planet they may not be able to sustain? The climax of Woman at War is both a reminder of what Halla has been fighting for and a comment on its insurmountability — an equally sad and absurdly comic coup de grace of symbolism that speaks to Woman at War’s contradictory strengths. It’s too late: We’re already underwater.
WOMAN AT WAR. Director: Davíð Þór Jónsson; Cast: Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, Jóhann Sigurðarson, Juan Camillo Roman Estrada Jörundur Ragnarsson; Distributor: Magnolia; in Icelandic with English subtitles; now playing at Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale and Cinema Paradiso in Hollywood; opens today at Living Room Theaters at FAU.