'The Divine Order' ('Die goettliche Ordnung'): Film Review

More diverting than divine.

Marie Leuenberger ('The Circle') stars as a housewife fighting for women's right to vote in 1971 Switzerland in the country's foreign-language Oscar submission, directed by Petra Volpe.

"Girls can't get pregnant on their own," a hausfrau from a small town in 1971 Switzerland tells her husband when he declares he's happy he's got two sons and not a daughter who could one day come home pregnant. It's a small act of rebellion that's a bellwether for things to come, as the woman reduced to cleaning the house and looking after her husband, kids and father-in-law will grow into a vocal supporter of women's right to vote, an issue that finally found its way onto the federal ballot several years after the 1968 protests had swept across the rest of the continent. Directed and written by Petra Volpe, who brought to life the iconic Swiss heroine Heidi as a screenwriter a few years ago, The Divine Order (Die Goettliche Ordnung) is an entertaining, if largely predictable, story of an individual swept up in the tide of history.

The Divine Order is Switzerland's submission in the foreign-language Oscar category and made around $4.5 million at home, an impressive number for the small country. Stateside audiences have responded well to this period film with clear contemporary echoes as well, with Volpe winning the audience award at both the Tribeca and Traverse festivals earlier this year. This can only bode well for Kino Lorber and Zeitgeist's planned Oct. 27 release. 

The genial if conservative Hans (Max Simonischek) is given a promotion at the saw mill where he works, but his wife and the mother of their two sons, Nora (Marie Leuenberger), would much rather have a job of her own. Swiss law allowed husbands at that time to decide for their wives, so Hans nixes the idea. "I'll get you pregnant again so you won't be bored," is his clueless response. But when Hanna (Ella Rumpf), the rebellious teenage daughter of Nora's sister (Rachel Braunschweig), decides to run off with her long-haired biker boyfriend and ends up being locked away for her actions, Nora has had enough of how women's desires are being simply ignored or punished. Before long, she has started campaigning for women's right to vote, an issue that will soon appear on the ballot but that, irony of ironies, only men will be able to vote on.

In her screenplay, Volpe does make sure that the change from mousey housewife to flag-waving suffragette isn't entirely devoid of moral shading and complexity. For example, Nora was actually responsible for chaperoning Hanna when the latter decided to run off, making Nora feel both guilty and perhaps a little jealous about her niece's actions. But there is no denying that Nora, as the heroine on a road to self discovery and victory, is a character that often feels more like a template than a human being, even if Leuenberger, who makes Nora striking in her ordinariness, manages to smuggle in a lot of nuance and, especially, heart. The final outcome, however, is also not only foreseeable but actually inevitable, with Volpe opting for a classically structured tale of a protagonist realizing her full potential against major odds.

What makes the film nonetheless affecting and diverting is Volpe's colorful gallery of supporting characters. First, not all the men are vilified, with most of them uneducated and resisting any kind of change rather than clearly evil. And the film's cast of supporting women offers a wider and more diverse look at how they are treated both at home and abroad while adding humor and pathos, especially when the fate of one of the characters takes a more unfortunate turn in the second half.

Primus — or should that be Prima? — inter pares is Vroni, an elderly lady played with typical gusto by the always delightful septuagenarian Sibylle Brunner (Rosie). Vroni already campaigned for women's right to vote back in 1959, and she's the one who pushes Nora to do what she herself couldn't accomplish 12 years earlier. Her personal story shows how unfair it is that women don't even have the right to run their own businesses, robbing her of her livelihood after becoming a widow.

A foreign perspective comes from the independently minded, fashion-forward Graziella (Marta Zoffoli), an Italian who has recently moved to Nora's German-speaking village in the Alps, where the local women make comically weird faces when they try what Graziella tells them is coffee but what looks suspiciously like something strong and concentrated rather than thin and watery. As an outsider from a country a little further ahead, she also has an idea or two about how to make the local men come around to their point of view (no points for guessing it's basically a variation on what happens in Lysistrata).

The bond between the three is really cemented when they go the big city for a suffragettes protest and also attend a seminar given by a Swedish guru (Sofia Helin) on getting to know their own intimate parts. The latter scene is funny in its awkwardness but also a narrative necessity to drive home the point that if women are allowed to know themselves better, rather than exist solely for others, men might also profit from the newly acquired knowledge.

One of the antagonists is also woman, in what seems like a smart idea to further balance things out. The holier-than-thou Mrs. Wipf (Terese Affolter) is a bossy character, but her cause is the status quo rather than equality — she goes on about there being a "divine order" to the relationships between men and women. Since she's also one of the community's leaders, however, Volpe could have brought out the ironies and dualities in her character a little bit more, and as currently drawn Frau Wipf is a little too much of a harridan cliche.

Nonetheless, Volpe and editor Hansjoerg Weissbrich string together scene after scene in such a way that the film remains engaging and even quite light, despite the seriousness of its subject. Like many of the men (and a few women) in the story, the camerawork of Judith Kaufmann hovers somewhere between old-fashioned and modern, toggling between classical pans and more immediate, handheld shots. Production designer Timm Brueckner and costume designer Linda Harper evoke the period in a lightly stylized way that occasionally reeks of nostalgia, but thankfully the film's final look remains recognizably realistic. The only real hiccup is the music, with Annette Focks' score mostly musty and period song choices that are very on the nose, including Aretha Franklin's "Respect" and Lesley Gore's "You Don't Own Me."

A shocking postscript reveals that full equality for men and women wasn't enshrined in the Swiss constitution until 1981, and it took until 1990 until the last canton in the country gave women the right to vote on local as well as federal issues.

Production companies: Zodiac Pictures, SRF, Teleclub
Cast: Marie Leuenberger, Max Simonischek, Rachel Braunschweig, Sibylle Brunner, Marta Zoffoli, Bettina Stucky, Noe Krejci, Finn Sutter, Peter Freiburghaus, Therese Affolter, Ella Rumpf, Sofia Helin
Writer-Director: Petra Volpe
Producers: Lukas Hobi, Reto Schaerli
Director of photography: Judith Kaufmann
Production designer: Timm Brueckner
Costume designer: Linda Harper
Editor: Hansjoerg Weissbrich
Music: Annette Focks
Casting: Ruth Hirschfeld, Corinna Glaus
Sales: TrustNordisk

In Swiss-German, Italian, English
No rating, 96 minutes

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