Woman at War

Woman at War ★★★★

Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War is a vital, genre-bending parable about the perils of human complacency in the face of planetary collapse. A superb eco-conscious thriller, the film follows a radical guerrilla-activist—the middle-aged Halla (played by the tenacious Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir)—who has realized that passively protesting environmental catastrophe is no longer sufficient. Halla is a quirky, well-adjusted, headstrong woman. She meditates, rides her bike around town, disseminates political pamphlets, and eagerly anticipates the opportunity to adopt a Ukrainian child. She also would be defined—absurd as it is, when viewed holistically—as a ’terrorist’: given that she is a solo, renegade crusader (the news coverage nicknames her “Mountain Woman”) hellbent on disrupting the power lines feeding energy to a remote aluminum plant.

Set in both the quaint urban cityscape of Reykjavik and the lush Icelandic countryside, the film’s starkly diametric settings reminds the viewer of the harsh disparity between the primordial earth and technological civilization. Nevertheless, there is one aspect that seamlessly operates in both milieus: the pervasive and looming specter of mass surveillance. Wherever Halla goes, she is surrounded by the state-operated panopticon. She listens to descriptions of herself on the taxi radio / her TV's evening news; she is hunted by hauntingly neutral lethal drones; and she is constantly forced to cleverly circumvent invasive checkpoints run by cops administering DNA tests or vehicle inspections.

It is no wonder Halla is so keen on stifling the flow of power: both literally (electric power lines) and socially (governmental / industrial power) controlled by centralized forces, its monopolization fortifies the firewalls that maintain the status quo.

What is perhaps most surprising about Woman at War is how deftly Erlingsson combines the film’s ideological agenda with both avant-garde gimmicks (the diegetic score is performed live, onscreen, by a trio of musicians) and the tropes of high-drama genre entertainment (tense chase scenes and action sequences). Halla’s covert missions of industrial sabotage are visceral and gripping. Her seditious machinations—from wearing a Nelson Mandela mask while launching an arrow at a drone, to hiding her tools under fertilizer, to hiding in mossy, volcanic crevices—pulse with the suspense of a popcorn spy-flick; and yet, the film’s polemical tone and timely call for anarchic environmentalism is unrepentant and unvarnished.

The denouement (*spoiler alert*) is appropriately realistic, though verging on tragic / hopeless: Halla is caught, and jailed. Bleak as it may be, there is an unspoken fortitude seeping out of Halla’s eyes that offers a degree of salvation. Though captured, her clarity of mind and purpose remain impervious to the impact of petty, state-dictated recriminations. Halla may be incarcerated physically, but like all great minds she exudes the steadfastness to transform her cell into a spiritual convent.

Similarly, Halla’s twin sister Àsa (played by Geirharðsdóttir), ends the film in a dire circumstance. After a bus breaks down due to rising floodwaters in Ukraine, she is left trudging with her newly adopted daughter (representing our allegorical future) through a waist-high deluge. But even beset by such inconveniences, Halla and Àsa radiate a transcendent resilience. Erlingsson’s urgent ultimatum thus becomes quite clear: the fight to save the planet may be a sacrificial one, but it will never be as soul-defeating as failing to fight / tend to our future altogether.

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