The Icelandic film “Woman at War” is just the sort of quirky Nordic comedy that has been the Wisconsin Film Festival’s bread and butter — or, given that it's Iceland, its open-faced fermented shark sandwich — almost since it began in 1999.
Films from Iceland, Sweden and Denmark have generally done well at the festival, which is put on every spring by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Division of the Arts and the UW’s Communication Arts Department. So perhaps it was a no-brainer that “Woman at War” would be the opening night festival screening Thursday before a full house at Shannon Hall in the Memorial Union.
Halldora Geirharosdottir plays Halla, a kindly middle-aged woman beloved in her village, where she’s the director of the local choir. But Halla has an alter ego, an avenging angel causing mischief and vandalism to protect the environment. In the opening scene, she takes a bow and arrow into the countryside to disrupt the power lines that feed a local smelting plant that’s poisoning the environment.
As Halla’s acts of eco-resistance become more audacious, she becomes Public Enemy No. 1 in the eyes of the corporations and government officials who support them. While we’re squarely on Halla’s side, writer-director Benedikt Erlingsson shows how the government and a compliant media can bend public opinion, creating a narrative that compares Halla’s deeds to that of ISIS terrorists. Helicopters, bloodhounds and drones are brought in to try and catch her, and the Shannon Hall audience gave the film two sustained rounds of applause at her ingenious ways of eluding capture.
These taut, spare scenes of suspense are balanced against the film’s absurdist sense of humor. One recurring joke is that the film’s score is played by three bearded musicians who keep popping up in the film, acting as a kind of Greek chorus for her exploits.
“Woman at War” is a lot of fun, but it also asks serious questions of our actions (or inaction) in the face of the looming global threat of climate change. How far would we go to save the planet, and what if that wasn’t enough?
The film, jaunty and jovial, ends on a haunting final image that suggests a world that has lost its way, trudging forward towards an uncertain future. It’s almost enough to make you want to pick up a bow and arrow.
Thursday’s opening night celebration also included the presentation of the Golden Badger Awards, given to filmmakers either from Wisconsin or who have Wisconsin ties.
All three films are playing during the festival. James Runde’s Madison-filmed “Played Out” plays at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Union South Marquee, Bill Brown’s “Life on the Mississippi” will play at 8:30 p.m. Saturday at the Marquee as part of the “It’s Only Natural” short film series, and Todd McGrain’s documentary “Elephant Path” plays at 11 a.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday at AMC Madison 6.
McGrain, a UW-Madison graduate and sculptor who made his debut as a filmmaker with “Elephant Path,” got choked up as he talked about what being at the university meant to him.
“It was the first time that I even imagined being an artist in the world,” he said. “I’ll be forever grateful to the UW for that.”
The Wisconsin Film Festival runs through April 11 at several on-campus locations and at AMC Madison 6. For a full schedule, visit 2019.wifilmfest.org.