From the start, “Woman at War” lets you know that you’re in for a ride that will be as arresting visually as it is offbeat conceptually.
The Icelandic film, which premiered on Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival, opens with gorgeous shots of the rugged Icelandic countryside, where a woman short-circuits a string of power lines with only a bow and arrow.
The middle-aged ecoterrorist then flees across the gentle hills, as music from a small combo plays in the background — literally in the background, because when she stops to catch her breath, we see the three musicians who are playing the score standing on the heath behind her.
That’s a wry touch that continues through the film: When Halla, played by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, gets some news on the phone that makes her emotional, a gentle piano melody begins playing on the soundtrack — and it’s only a matter of time before she walks in the living room and we see the piano player tinkling the ivories in the corner.
By the end of the movie, Halla is being cued to upcoming events by the presence of her musicians: When she’s in a security line at the airport and there’s a drummer in the car outside pounding an insistent beat, she’s seen enough suspense movies to know she might be in trouble.
Director Benedikt Erlingsson could be commenting on how film scores can be their own kind of spoilers or acknowledging that we all need a band to serenade our lives — or perhaps this filmmaker has both a great eye and a great fondness for silliness.
Erlingsson’s last film, “Of Horses and Men,” was a twisted but delightful gem, an episodic comedy of human and equine manners that represented Iceland in the Oscar foreign-language race in 2013. (It didn’t even get shortlisted, for which I blame the Academy far more than the director.)
“Woman at War” is more straightforward in that it tells one story, not six interlocking ones. But straightforward is a relative term when you’re dealing with a director who has Erlingsson’s fondness for deadpan absurdity.
Halla is a mild-mannered ecoterrorist who roams the heath striking back at the industrialization that threatens her country, then hiding from the drones, infrared cameras and helicopters full of cops that try to track her down. And by the way, she’s a choirmaster who is trying to adopt a 4-year-old Ukrainian girl. And she has a twin sister. And a new friend who lives in the country with a loud dog and a bunch of sheep.
All of this will prove to be important. And funny. And serious.
Erlingsson is dealing with elemental matters here — the destruction of the environment, the degradation of politics into a sideshow, the yearning for human connection — but he’s having too much fun to get all solemn about it. He’s a prankster with a purpose, an artist unafraid to get goofy.
And “Woman at War” is a beautiful hoot.