Review of Icelandic film Woman at War (2018) (Kona fer i strid)

I don’t ordinarily bother writing about films I don’t enjoy. So, this is also a recommendation. Written and directed by Benedikt Erlingsson, written also by Olafur Egilsson, the film is, first and foremost, smart; multilayered, thought-provoking, and artistic in the sense that it actually features art. Music, primarily.

WaW’s overriding beauty in my eyes is that it complicates the hero archetype that my society is so innocently taken with. Sure, heroism is awesome; I want to save the world, too- or I did when I was young. Homer’s Odyssey famously teaches that heroism is for the young; the Iliad’s portrait of thwarted Achilles does the same. Our protagonist Halla is undoubtedly heroic, a skilled saboteur of the monkey wrench gang lineage. Her specialty is damaging the local electrical power grid. The story personalizes the effect of her sabotage by adding an aluminum foundry that is shut down whenever Halla’s efforts succeed. Halla has been sabotaging this foundry for a while, it seems. Perhaps she started in her youth; she is now middle-aged.

The grandeur of the Icelandic landscape, the beauty of a woman bravely shooting a recurved bow at the Goliath of an electrical tower to halt the grinding wheels of big industry, however temporarily, begs utter appreciation and respect. We may sigh a bit in our heart of hearts, and wonder; why don’t people do this sort of thing more often? Why do we stand by, feeling helpless, moaning and mourning for the proverbial rape of the Earth?

Erlingsson et al. spend the rest of the film answering such questions, against a bit of an archetypal background. Archetype being one of the reasons I like the film very much, but if you’re not a fan that won’t matter at all. The film uses the masculine and feminine archetypes in the form of the four elements; foundry, electricity, drones and helicopters are the masculine air and fire elements. Halla finds healing and protection from these in feminine earth; she scrambles under peaty overhangs when pursued by helicopters and drones, she lies prone upon the soft peat when exhausted. She finds healing in a hot spring, she finds respite in a swimming pool; feminine water element.

And the film ends with the classic symbol of rain as love, as in The Who’s hit Rain On Me. Halla’s farmer cousin Sveinbjorn is a fun character along these masculine-feminine lines; for one he has a shepherd dog named Woman, and the relationship between the two describes in part the man’s relationship with his inner feminine. Don’t get all literal about the fact that he commands the dog; for Halla also commands her inner masculine in order to do her monkey wrenching. We’re talking inside jobs. Sveinbjorn’s relationship with his (probable) cousin is the result of his loving inner connection with the feminine, for he is Halla’s greatest support. Sveinbjorn is a man of the earth, natch; a big calm bear of a man in overalls, solid as the hills Halla wants to save from destruction, big enough to physically carry her when she is almost undone, unable to walk.

Halla’s “possible” cousin and his dog, Woman

The feminine archetype comes in as well with Halla’s occupation as a choral director, for the feminine is the collective archetype, as opposed to the masculine individual. In a chorus, all are theoretically equal, and must give way to the needs of the group. Those who sing high are not better than those who sing low; if one makes a mistake, the group covers the faux pas. Through translated dialogue we English speakers know the first chorus scene features a song about spring; more earth element stuff, right? However, I am still sad because there was no translation to English of lyrics on the DVD I rented. I spent some time searching to no avail.

Halla’s male trio

The film won some kind of award for the sound track, in part because the director/writers give Halla a sort of Greek chorus, basically. During her modern day Artemisian (the virgin archer goddess) activities, a trio plays in the background; a trio of men. Drums, tuba, accordion or piano; not my favorite ensemble, but certainly masculine. A Greek chorus was designed to add commentary on the dramatic proceedings; I experienced their tootings and thumpings more as support than commentary, like a military band. A few times it seemed they were just echoing her inner state, as in picking up the beat when she was getting nervous about things. So not quite the same as a Greek chorus.

The plot thickens when we find out that a. Halla is eligible to adopt a child, and b. she has a twin sister who also wanted to adopt 4 years ago when they both applied. The sister is Asa, played by Halla’s actress; Halldora Geirhardsdotter. The appearance of Asa gives the writers the opportunity to expand the hero archetype now, for the sisters have opposing views on the matter of activism. Asa is a spiritual type; a yoga teacher who is about to enter some kind of spiritual community to ramp up her meditation game. She is willing to be Halla’s second for the adoption, but she no longer wants to adopt, for she is dedicating her life to enlightenment. She is working for planetary change on the level of consciousness.

Halla’s dangerous activism presents complications to her decision to adopt a child. The adoption of a child is certainly a form of saving the world, right? But it does not dovetail at all with Halla’s monkey wrenching. I won’t go further, and spoil it. Since the child is Ukrainian, Halla now receives a new Greek chorus, that really is a chorus, or rather, a trio of women in Ukrainian traditional dress. Again, I hate that I could not understand the words of their songs, but I assume they are in Ukrainian. The message with the new trio is, that the monkey wrenching is essentially a masculine occupation, whereas the adoption is a feminine one.

Halla with her heroes behind her

The film doesn’t lack fun twists; it’s actually got some comedy and is promoted as such. Mostly in the form of a seemingly homeless Spanish-speaking guy who toodles around on his bike, whom we will assume is intended to be an immigrant or refugee. Though as far as I know there are tons of people moving from one country to another in Europe just to get employment. And they are not strictly refugees and they do not immigrate. Anyway, Juan keeps appearing at crucial junctures, when Halla is about to get caught, and ends up being racially profiled, assumedly. He can’t speak the language, is clueless to the point of clownish, and Juan ends up in jail. His humble foolishness ends up being a cosmic form of support, as though the gods were on Halla’s side; Hermes, in this case, the god of fools.

There is more comedy of the bumbling Keystone Cops sort; the officials made to look foolish. Of course many who join armed services and police departments are self styled heroes, however poorly that plays out in their actual experience. Again; heroism of that sort is a masculine game, for the hero is actually an individual, one who takes on the giant- and wins, of course. And there’s the rub; Achilles’s heel. For we can only win so many times; then the harder they come, the harder they fall. As hero, do we have the support of our human community, the factor introduced by the filmmakers in Halla’s chorus?

The turn of Halla’s transformational screw takes place when she rides through town after a successful and very dangerous sabotage to find that the townsfolk would probably lynch her, did they know who she was. If I am hated for my heroic act, if I have failed in that regard, am I still a hero? Or just a legend in my own mind? Am I here to save the planet at the expense of the human community? Can a criminal be a hero? Juan’s Che Guevara shirt poses such activism questions, too.

The writers do a fine job of turning our normative values on their heads, over and over. I may watch it again to see if I catch any more classical references. Did the writers intend one when Halla manages to escape capture by hiding under the bellies of some sheep? Hm. Anyway, 5 stars, people, beautifully done. By the way, Jodi Foster is supposed to be producing and acting in an American version of the film. I bet the archetypal stuff will disappear- we’ll see. Perhaps it’s indelibly woven.

At the end, in the rain, the masculine and feminine join in support of Halla’s new endeavor. The men lend protection for the women with umbrellas…:)

The Who, and the film trailer:



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