Woman at War (Kona fer í stríð) is an optimistic relief for the cinema of the eco-friendly saboteur. If Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2018) is austere and ascetic, Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War is reflexively warm hearted and gratifying. The Icelandic director approaches the gravest of themes with the gentlest of touches. He has made a firmly inclusive picture that is crowd friendly, not out of compromise, but because they have a message they must share with an audience.
The industry of Iceland is encroaching on the natural reserves of its gorgeous highlands. Halla (a powerful Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) has taken matters into her own hands, destroying powerlines and preventing a new aluminum operation from getting settled. She’s caught the attention of authorities, dubbing herself the Mountain Woman, the enemy of big industry. She also has great depth – having signed on to adopt an orphan many years ago, she’s just received word that the process went through – and must decide between nurturing a child and saving the world, if the concepts are not inherently mutually beneficial.
Woman at War has a fantastic running gag, as a three-piece band or an acapella trio (sometimes both) are inserted into shots, providing hilariously excessive diegetic context for the soundtrack. It is a well-worn technique by now, but the inventiveness of their shots is hilarious. The first comes in a very well-considered credits sequence, where the titles hang over the low Icelandic skies. Our saboteur comes into frame and there’s a band in the middle of the mountains – piano, drum set, horn, and all, and they’re playing her a theme. This is repeated, whether she’s on a rooftop or by a public pool. The film takes yet another measure as Halla is a choir teacher by trade – the music innovatively blending between grand operatic choir and bold multi-instrument statements of intent. Much like she orchestrates her singers, Halla orchestrates her eco-agenda, and the confluence of these parts is an absolutely genius fit.
There are several concerns at play for Halla. Her protest of industry would seriously put her prospective adoptive child at risk, who has already had all their family killed in a war. And our heroine’s not getting any younger, this may be her only chance at nurturing a young life. She’s also met with light opposition from her family, a twin sister (also humorously played by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) whom may be too committed to her yoga practice to care for the child if Halla’s activism catches up to her. She does have the good graces of a local farmer who is said to be her cousin and helps traffic her around and coordinate travel between her dangerous activities. These are people of the land, totally interconnected and sacredly of the place, allegedly they are cousins until he finds an attraction for her twin sister, and then he stresses, yeah, they are cousins, allegedly.
The film’s shot with a lens for warm earth tone pastels. It evokes Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) and The Tree of Life (2011) – the latter also shot in Iceland – in equal measure. Often Halla will bury her head in the ground, she’ll try to become a part of the earth, as though it is her spiritual grounding, and she is also its cousin. This film’s DNA is strictly embedded within the earth it loves and wishes to protect. It has such a great endless heart.
Woman at War is a right sized personal opus. It’s the right film at the right time, emblematic of the zeitgeist. Erlingsson gets away with being artful and concerned without ever leaning into precious or preachy sentimentality. The film may have clear, even blatant, messaging but finds such a novel way to present it, especially through its innovative fusion of musical context, that it is an absolute pleasure to watch. Woman at War is a winning production from Iceland after all our hearts. Let’s give it the attention it has earned.