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Woman at War offers an odd pairing: eco-terrorism and laughs. The Icelandic film follows a middle-aged environmental activist whose bold acts of industrial sabotage have made headlines and unsettled her small town. She faces serious consequences if she gets caught, and her personal stakes are raised when she receives an unexpected phone call about a girl who’s waiting to be adopted. There’s plaintive piano after this call; then the woman absently walks into another room, and the piano player is there. And it’s like someone opened a window to let out any possible stuffiness.
A drums-sousaphone-accordion trio as well as Ukrainian folk singers regularly show up onscreen as they play the score, and it’s always good for a giggle. They watch Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) and even sometimes get in on the action, expressing concern, for example, when she slices her hand, or turning the TV back on so she can see something important. It keeps things light when too much seriousness is threatened.
Halla is known in her area only as the Mountain Woman. At the beginning of Benedikt Erlingsson’s film, she’s shooting an arrow attached to a wire around a power pylon to short it out and therefore cut electricity to a plant. A police helicopter is nearby, and as Halla hides from it—soon finding shelter in the barn of a farmer (Jóhann Sigurðarson)—a Spanish-speaking tourist (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada) who happens to be riding his bike in the area gets picked up by the cops. His favorite word seems to be “puta,” and this will not be the only time he’s arrested.
Halla, who in her daily life is a cheery choir director, has acted to delay an energy deal between Iceland and China, and even though it works, her co-conspirator (Jörundur Ragnarsson) thinks she’s being too risky. He urges her to release a “manifesto” and be done with the terrorist acts. Indeed, some local people are against her crusade, which she says she “believes with all my heart to be right.” But then she gets that call telling her that a 4-year-old Ukrainian girl needs a mother. Halla hasn’t thought about her adoption application for years, so the news blindsides her and makes her reconsider her ways. She can’t adopt if she has a criminal record. But the siren song is too strong: She does indeed write a manifesto, which she scatters from atop a roof. And then she goes for one last act.
Erlingsson co-wrote the script of his second feature with Ólafur Egilsson, and the pair approach the subject with an airy touch, though at times you want a little more substance. The plot also involves Halla’s twin sister, Ása (also Geirharðsdóttir), who’s willing to sign on as the adopted girl’s backup guardian even though she’s about to travel to an ashram in India for two years. The subtext of the sisters’ conversations is whether inner work or outer actions serve to make the world a better place. But this idea isn’t highly explored, and a large part of the third act is simply watching Halla trying to get away from authorities after another sabotage. Though that may sound exciting, it’s a quiet part of the film that could have used a boost.
The filmmakers pick things up with an interesting twist at the end, one that leads to a sweet moment as well as a striking final image that implicates the climate change Halla is trying to rectify. You get the feeling that although she may temporarily give up her battles, the Mountain Woman will never relinquish her war.
Woman at War opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.