Film Review: The Divine Order

Switzerland’s selection for Foreign-Language Oscar recognition is a charming, entertaining, sometimes sexy, fact-based tale of women in a small Swiss village who mobilized decades ago to campaign for voting rights.
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The Oscar nominations are a few months away, but Zeitgeist Films already has a winner with The Divine Order, writer-director Petra Volpe’s fine, fact-based look at one village’s struggle to bring women their voting rights in a country stuck in staunchly patriarchal tradition.

A supremely confident work that won several Tribeca Fest prizes, The Divine Order is a package sure to satisfy quality and entertainment-seeking art-house fans. It’s a savvy combo of dramatic elements enlivened with some lighter, even graphic moments of sexual exploration (though it stays firmly in the “straight” if not so narrow lane) that should also attract mainstream attention.

Predictably, female viewers will be the most enchanted, but males of the species will also be onboard. Machismo and the male culture of power especially of decades past are vivid here (bullying, entitlement, resentment, etc.). But male characters here are all recognizable and honestly rendered. Men will recognize something of themselves, chuckle more than they’ll squirm, and all viewers will recognize the accommodating climate that allowed their privileges (an insight especially relevant these days).

Although surprising, as late as 1971 Swiss women were still denied their voting rights—in an idealized country long identified with peace and beauty. Just prior to the historic countrywide vote and in an unnamed village, Nora (a wonderful Marie Leuenberger), a typical young mother and housewife married to handsome Hans (also excellent Max Simonischek), wants to apply for a travel agency job, as she’s clearly fascinated by the vast world beyond her village. But as is his right under antiquated Swiss law, Hans, a hard-working factory drone just promoted to manager by his harshly reactionary female boss Mrs. Wipf (Therese Affolter), forbids Nora to apply.

Her place, as the times and law dictates, is in the farm homestead she shares with Hans’ tortured farmer brother, Werner (Nicholas Ofczarek), his wife, Theresa (Rachel Braunschweig), and their rebellious 20-year-old daughter, Hanna (Ella Rumpf), who is the most aware member of this backward household.

Nora busies herself with cooking meals, caring for the kids and, among other chores, cleaning up after the chair-bound commanding grump of a gramps, whose mind in the Middle Ages when it isn’t on the porn magazines he hides under his mattress. It’s no surprise that Nora wants more of life. And she’s further disturbed when Werner orders Hanna, who has run away with her boyfriend, to be confined to a detention home.

A turning point occurs when Nora, doing errands in the village, happens upon a table of pamphlets advocating female equality and women’s right to vote. She takes them home, reads ardently (while Hans is off for a few weeks of compulsory military duty) and brings Theresa onto her bandwagon. Together, they go off to Zurich for women’s marches and workshops (and here the film gets amusingly explicit as a new-agey feminist group leader teaches women to get to know their vaginas).

Back in the village and as the voting-rights date nears, Nora joins some local activists. These include the endearing, elderly Vroni (Sibylle Brunner), who lost her restaurant to a now-deceased husband who mismanaged the business and drove her into poverty, and the lively Graziella (Marta Zoffoli), a young Italian immigrant who is reopening the place as a pizza parlor but is also dealing with marriage issues. As the village’s activists grow and use the restaurant space as their headquarters, so does resistance from the men and even the bitchy Mrs. Wifp. Plenty ensues, including setbacks, victories, brawls and even deaths. While history has already informed that the Swiss women did win the right to vote, audiences will enjoy a fine journey through twists and surprises watching how Nora and the gang finally achieve their goals.

Volpe enriches her tale with an early montage depicting the times that are a changin’ (except in Switzerland) and with loads of wonderful scenery of the village and surrounding mountainous countryside. Performances (especially Leuenberger’s) couldn’t be better. And the soundtrack further conveys the spirit of the film and its times with hits from the likes of Lesley Gore and Aretha Franklin.

The Divine Order is intelligent fun but functions on another level. It provides a poignant lesson in the importance of creating awareness by opening eyes, hearts and minds to improving conditions that are fair and beneficial to society, even as these days too many of those eyes, hearts and minds belong to people who are just plain stupid and/or selfish. Lessons like this are often better delivered from the screen than from the pulpit.

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