Few things seem to have been further from the minds of Icelandic filmmakers then politics, something that become ever more awkwardly obvious in the decade since the crash (outside of documentaries that is, there are plenty of interesting political Icelandic docs). There are certainly honourable exceptions, but they have either been flops like Messenger and Stormland or the weakest part of otherwise good movies, like Life in a Fishbowl.
Perhaps those flops are the reason – or could it even be the close relations filmmakers need to have to financiers, in this most expensive of art forms? Yet that theory doesn’t really hold water, not when Hollywood films that cost hundreds of millions of dollars and a Captain America or a Star Wars have more political edge then all the Icelandic feature films this century. Until now.
Because two of the most interesting Icelandic films this year are both highly political and deliver those politics in totally different ways. At the start of the year we had And Breathe Normally …, where a good-old fashioned social-realism was used to tell the story of two women – both victims of circumstances that a little bit of a political willpower could easily fix. Lára is a border guard at Keflavík International Airport, and she can’t make ends meet and lives out of her car with her young son. Her past and her personality certainly have something to do with that, but this still represents the reality of so many, who are finding just living in their own home country becoming prohibitively expensive. Then she meets Adja, a refugee who can’t live anywhere, regardless of the cost.
Yet anybody who’s read the stories today’s refugees tell will know there are plenty of good, dramatic films to be found there. But a film about the fight against global warming? It seems we’re not even able to make a good futuristic disaster film about it, with all the dramatic possibilities that brings.
But Woman at War is indeed such a film – and brings a fresh approach to it. One of the reasons why films about idealists can be so tricky is the Casablanca syndrome – a syndrome even older than that film itself, where the hero has to have a bit of a Bogart in him, be cynical enough, while the idealist Victor Laszlo is, without any doubt, a good guy. Yet nobody wants to see an entire film about Victor Laszlo. Even his wife sticks with him out of duty more then anything else.
Yet while Casablanca may just be the best film in the universe we might have drawn the wrong conclusions from it, perhaps it is possible to make a whole film about the Victor Laszlo’s of the world and make them good. Halla in Woman at War is that type, she’s a social justice warrior if there ever was one, meanwhile her twin sister is a new age yoga teacher – they take those interests a bit too far and any sort of cynicism and world-weariness is worlds away from them.
Or does she go too far? Are we perhaps the problem, using our cynicism and pessimism to keep our cool –and stay comfortably in our bubble just a little longer. The film could easily have been unbearably righteous and humourless – and even if the characters aren’t the funny types the filmmakers see the funny side of them – and it’s a warm, embracing kind of humour Benedikt brings to the table. Those twins are the elderly hippy aunts of my generation, warm, well-meaning and perhaps a bit too full of righteousness … or perhaps just a bit more genuine then the self-absorbed generation that followed them, having lost faith in their ways.
But back to Halla. She’s presented to us with a bow and arrow in the first scene, a modern-day Robin Hood, trying to castrate the big factories and bring nature back to the people. She’s also a bit of a superhero, her Clark Kent disguise being a conductor of a local choir. The duality goes further with the introduction of her twin sister, Ása. Not just because they are twins, but because they are two sides of the same coin. All of us sometimes have to choose between improving the world and bettering ourselves (or our situation) – and the sisters have gone in opposite directions in some ways, even if they share a common goal their approach are completely different.
Theatre Enters Icelandic Cinema
Benedikt’s first film, Of Horses and Men, was certainly a fine film with a singular vision, but it still fell into the overpopulated genre of films about strange characters in the Icelandic countryside. This one is much more revolutionary, at least in the context of the local scene. What makes it unique in Icelandic film history may just be how it brings the theatre into the cinema. For a long time the theatre background of almost every Icelandic actor was a drag on Icelandic films, with everybody over-articulating their lines – but otherwise the methods of theatre have been far away from Icelandic films.
And I’m not just talking about the obvious, the bands who follow Halla’s every move in an otherwise realistic story. I’m also talking about when she’s riding her bicycle happily through a downtown Reykjavík devoid of both cars and tourists. Possibly that’s another environmental message, showing us how lovely cities would be without cars – but then there’s an almost identical scene later, after the paranoia levels have gone slightly up – and now there is one car behind her. Which in the context becomes a potential threat – and showing us how theatre logic can work in the cinema, where for the sake of form only the essential things can be put on the stage, not like in a film where everything that would be there in reality has to be present.
It’s also fun to see Juan Camillo reprise his role from Of Horses and Men as just about the unluckiest tourist in the world. I’m always partial to this nice little tradition of recurring characters in otherwise non-connected works by the same author, yet it’s something that has sadly been mostly lacking in Icelandic literature and films, at least to my knowledge. Yet the same riff might not work again, I think the character must deepen and evolve next time around – and here’s actually a suggestion for Benedikt: it’s time for this supporting character to become the lead! Not least because we’re sorely lacking in stories about foreigners in Iceland, be they tourists, refugees, expats or immigrants.
The Ukrainian part is also well done and not the afterthought I feared. The only problem: it’s too short. And that’s true of a lot of things in the film. The focus is always on Halldóra Geirðharðsdóttir’s Halla, who also portrays the twin sister Ása, oh, and did I mention Halldóra is spectacular in the role? I won’t mention that because some things are just too obvious to mention. Anyways, it would have been great to see her insider friend sweat more during ministry meetings, to see more of the government plotting, get more from the Ukraine and learn more about Jóhann Sigurðsson’s stoic farmer, who is, when I think about it, really the Humphrey Bogart of the story in his odd way. The cuddly farming Bogart type. Also, more of Juan during his prison stint – and so on and so on. Essentially the films main flaw is that it’s not at least three hours. Not just for all those side stories to blossom, but rather to complicate and deepen matters that are touched upon, albeit not much more. But of course a sequel is always an option …
Text: Ásgeir H Ingólfsson