Louis Malle's Calcutta (1969) is comprised of footage left over from the shooting of Phantom India, a seven-part TV documentary that aired in France and England in 1969. The former is a fascinating piece of ethnographic filmmaking, but mostly for all the wrong reasons: every difficult, unanswerable question about the ethical obligation of the outsider artist and the voyeuristic nature of film recording is posed by Calcutta (often, one senses, inadvertently). It purports to be an unvarnished document of a poverty-stricken metropolis in flux, but really it's a document of how artists try to lend themselves legitimacy by exoticizing the "Other" while neglecting to explore the object of their study with any empathy or respect.
On the same day that Captain Marvel was released, another female superhero stormed into American theaters, armed with a bow-and-arrow and ready to save the world. This one comes from Iceland and doubles as a choir director; when she's not struggling to file the adoption paperwork for a young girl from wartorn Ukraine, she spends her time blowing up electrical pylons and distributing eco-terrorist manifestos from the rooftops of buildings in Reykjavik. The ravages of capitalism and the global waste it engenders have led us to climate change, the manifestos urgently read; the only way to avoid our imminent destruction of the planet is to take down the corporations responsible for it. The woman is 49-year-old Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), whose sketchy backstory and uncanny ability to thwart multinational corporations and their security teams would be preposterous if the movie didn't sidestep their illogicality so blithely. But Woman at War mostly works as wish-fulfillment fantasy, conjuring images of a lone vigilante confronting the end of the world more strikingly and movingly than Marvel Studios ever could.
The title instantly poses associations with the well-trodden genre: where are Western’s figurative cowboys and Indians? Do we find a civilization lurching uncomfortably into modern times? Is there frontier justice, a sense of a moral code being written spontaneously in blood and sweat and dust? All of these things might be detected in Western, but it soon becomes apparent that the deeper meaning of the title is geopolitical. In a tiny Bulgarian village, perched on the border between the “West” of Europe and the “East” of Turkey (and, across the Black Sea, Russia), notions of nationalism, wealth, and masculinity are ready to combust.