Woman at War | dir. Benedikt Erlingsson | Iceland
It’s a war film without the blood and guts
It’s a climate change comedy thriller
It’s Kill Bill’s Icelandic sister
For some reason, there is no quippy logline that quite captures the charm of Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War. The film follows Halla (played fabulously by Halldora Geirharosdottir), a choir director by day and ecoterrorist by night, as she maneuvers the tricky registers of political radicalism and imminent motherhood. Woman begins with a tensely beautiful sequence in which Halla— affectionately nicknamed “The Mountain Woman” by the local news stations— singlehandedly dismantles a major electrical tower via bow and arrow. She is a saboteuse par excellence, but what’s key is that she does not harm a single person in her efforts. Her goal? To mobilize Icelandic legislators against the construction of an environmentally unfriendly metal factory outside Reykjavik. At first, the film unfolds as if it belongs to the heist genre. Halla expertly evades the police by donning costumes, freezing her cellphone, and concealing herself with the abject of the Earth— a sheep carcass, for one.
What’s more, her name, which translates from the Icelandic word for “tilt,” doubles as her impetus; what she desires most is not to harm others, but merely to shift the tide, to provoke change, to rattle the status quo. The pictures of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandala that litter her apartment serve as testament to her placid nature. After Halla’s latest disruption, she arrives home to find that an adoption application she submitted years ago has finally gone through: she has been matched with a four-year-old Ukrainian girl named Nika. Halla’s twin sister (also played by Geirharosdottir) is next in line in the adoption process, but unfortunately cannot house Nika due to a forthcoming yoga retreat in India. But don’t worry, she has more narrative pull than we think. Women are at the forefront of this war.
Indeed, the film doesn’t just empower the act of mothering (“Moms can do anything” Halla declares), it empowers women altogether. In perhaps the movie’s most badass moment, Halla scales a building and releases her climate-change manifesto from the rooftop onto unsuspecting bystanders. For Halla, action must be taken to undo the capitalist “war against Earth” that is destroying the ecosystem, and it turns out words and petty sabotage speak volumes more than bombs and blood. Quite a bit happens after the rooftop manifesto, but to reveal each and every fold would yield far fewer viewing pleasures.
Since the topic of climate change isn’t exactly sexy to the average viewer, perhaps one might be intrigued to find that the film bears a striking resemblance to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. Like twins—similar in outward appearance— both films concern themselves with a single woman whose morally questionable tendencies must be backgrounded after the introduction of a child (specifically a daughter) into her life. Both films play upon the tension between diegetic and nondiegetic music. Both films involve the mastery of a region-specific art (archery and samurai swordplay). The most notable difference between Kill Bill and Woman, however, is the absence of killing. Also, it is clear that Halla’s sex appeal is inconsequential to the plot of Woman, which is a major departure from the stylization of Beatrix Kiddo, who is best remembered for her skintight bumblebee motosuit. Fraternal sisters now, it seems—but perhaps that’s beside the point.
Woman at War manages to pester the conscience without the deployment of sex, violence, or eye-roll-inducing pathos, which is reason enough to give it a shot. Even if you dislike foreign films, or musicals, or films about climate change, just try it— just this once. Give in to the tilt.