When you imagine an eco-terrorist, you probably don’t picture someone like Halla (Halldora Geirhardsdottir), a fastidiously turned middle-aged choir director from Reykjavik. Yet there she is at the start of “Woman at War” using a bow and arrow to short out a power pylon and the industrial smelter to which it leads. There she is outfoxing government helicopters and bringing down surveillance drones before disappearing into the heaths of Iceland like a ghost. Surfacing back in the city, she’s an elegant, cultivated woman of a certain age. Out in the field, she’s an Amazon, a threat to civilization, and a legend.
Because it’s an Icelandic movie, and absurdism seems to bubble up in the hot springs and the bloodstreams, “Woman at War” exudes a puckish sense of humor even as it deals with dire matters. Director/co-writer Benedikt Erlingsson has had the notion to put his trio of soundtrack musicians, headed by composer David Thor Jonsson, in the corners and backgrounds of the scenes, so that Hall will doughtily trudge across the tundra to the visual accompaniment of accordion, tuba, and drum kit. It’s a gambit that’s initially cute, then forced, and then, over the long haul, rather graceful, as if these three were the only witnesses to Halla’s long war.
Well, they and the three Ukrainian folk singers in traditional dress.
Halla has been driven to become the anti-industrial monkey-wrencher known as the Mountain Woman because she sees time quickly running out for our species. When she finally gets around to releasing a manifesto — tossing copies like eco-confetti from the roof of a college building— it bristles with urgent defenses of “our indisputable right to protect the children of the future.” Halla’s twin sister, Asa (also Geirhardsdottir), is more of a touchy-feely New Ager who believes that change comes in small increments. Halla has lost patience for that. She’d rather head out to the power lines with a trove of stolen Semtex explosives.
“Woman at War” is an unusually intelligent drama that keeps an audience off-balance, torn between admiring its fierce heroine and wanting to argue over whether she’s an extremist or simplyright. The filmmakers engineer some scenes for thrills, as in Halla’s sly eluding of authorities, and some for farce, as in the unlucky Spanish bicycle tourist (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada) who’s always in the wrong place when the police turn up. We see how easily governments and the media marginalize and villainize dissent and how thoroughly good intentions can sow fear in the public instead of spreading activism.
There’s heart here, too, in the person of a stolid farmer (Johann Sigurdarson) who throws in his lot with Halla. There’s a pretty good sight gag involving a dead sheep. And there’s Halla’s desperate, foolish hope to adopt a Ukrainian orphan (Margaryta Hilska) in spite of the national dragnet out for her.
None of this would probably hold together without Geirhardsdottir in the lead(s). As Halla, the actress is a dreadnought of an idealist who’s also capable of warmth and graciousness (not to mention a mature sex appeal of a sort the movies rarely acknowledge); as Asa, she’s a good-hearted flake with a stalwart core. That deadpan midnight-sun humor keeps “Woman At War” at a pleasant low boil, but the sense of urgency never diminishes. The movie ends as you expect it must, then not quite, and finally with an image thathints eerily at the apocalypse just over the horizon.
WOMAN AT WAR
Directed by Benedikt Erlingsson. Written by Olafur Egilsson and Benedikt Erlingsson. Starring Halldora Geirhardsdottir, Johann Sigurdarson. At Kendall Square. 101 min. Unrated (as PG-13, some violence, language). In German and French, with subtitles.