Drama films

Woman at War Review – the mother of all green goddesses | Drama films

TTo describe Benedikt Erlingsson’s humor as “dry” is a bit like saying that things can get “cold” the closer you get to the Arctic Circle. After conquering Iceland’s theatrical stages and television screens as a writer, director and performer, Erlingsson turned to feature films in 2013, where his brand of tragi-comic tongue-in-cheek humor laughter once again touched a national nerve. His first directorial feature film, Of horses and men, won multiple Edda Awards from the Icelandic Academy as he went from quirky observation to somber contemplation via a series of striking surreal vignettes, including an accidental human / equine triple and the sight of someone ripped from the body of a frozen horse.

Like his dramatic predecessor, Erlingsson’s latest bid was Iceland’s official foreign-language film Oscar bid, though he once again failed to make the shortlist. (Nowadays, Children of Nature by Friðrik Þór Friðriksson, who produced Horses and men, remains the only Icelandic nomination in this category.) Yet, in the midst of the jet-black comedy of Woman at war, which takes as a catastrophic subject the theft of planet Earth, there is a warmth, a spirit and a wisdom that transcends national and cultural borders, making it a truly universal treat.

We open amidst the breathtaking beauty of rural Iceland, captured in spectacular fashion by cinematographer Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson, who worked such eerie magic on Horses and men. Here, an eco-warrior battling big industries under her alias “Mountain Woman” shoots an arrow at a power line, causing blackouts and bypassing government plans to build a new aluminum smelter. It’s about Halla, an environmental cycling guerrilla, beautifully performed by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, who combines the athletic physique of Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt with the depth and subtlety of the kaleidoscopic character of Liv Ullmann or Greta Garbo.

When not secretly holding heartless industrialists hostage, Halla leads a local choir, producing harmonious songs that provide a choral counterpoint to the increasingly jarring tensions of modern life. But in addition to saving Mother Earth, Halla is also in the process of attempting to adopt a child, a lengthy process that took an unexpected turn when a Ukrainian orphan is in desperate need of a home. Can Halla continue to wage an environmental war while taking on the role of a loving mother? Or will the authorities catch up with her underground activities before she achieves her dreams?

Aware of the “festival favorite” label that was affixed to Horses and men, Erlingsson sardonically described Woman at war as “a mainstream success story for any type of film … a heroic tale set in our world of imminent threat”. It’s a playful depiction of a subversive game that beautifully turns action movie clichés upside down, putting a twist of DIY on Impossible mission riffs, presenting his life and death struggles in a thrilling and quirky way.

Erlingsson cites real-life environmentalists such as Berta Cáceres and Yolanda Maturana as inspirational figures, but her story has a more mythical feel, incorporating elements of fable that make Halla the role of Artemis, the Greek goddess of the wilderness. This timeless theme is brilliantly underscored by Erlingsson’s adventurous use of on-screen musicians, whose accidental accompaniments serve as a sort of Greek chorus, mediating between action and audience. There is an element of the circus in the three-piece group that follows Halla on her quest, drums, accordion and sousaphone close at hand. Like escapees from the 2015 documentary The spectacle of shows (which Erlingsson created in collaboration with Sheffield’s National Fairground and Circus Archive), this group of rags seems to embody the sound of Halla’s warrior instincts. In contrast to its tense and rhythmic alarms, an enthusiastic Ukrainian choir offers a melancholy counterpoint, instruments and voices (male and female respectively) dramatizing the different elements of our heroine’s divided soul. As it is fitting that Halla has a twin sister, further emphasizing her dual nature.

Geirharðsdóttir with Margaryta Hilska as Nika. Photography: Everett Collection

While Erlingsson recognizes the theatrical effect of seeing instruments out of context played on rooftops and mountain sides, or finding brightly-dressed singers serenading figures on isolated roads, there is in fact nothing alienating or alienating in this dramatic apparatus. Rather, I found myself drawn deeper into Halla’s world by the presence of her muses, becoming even more immersed in her mission as the biting tension dances with absurd invention.

Geirharðsdóttir controls the screen throughout, but she receives significant support from Jóhann Sigurðarson as Sveinbjörn, the gruff avuncular sheep farmer who lives alone with his dog, Woman. In a country where virtually everyone is a cousin, Sveinbjörn forges an unexpected bond with Halla, as moving and enveloping as this strangely beautiful film itself.

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