Every so often, a film can completely take you by surprise. You start watching – with no expectations whatsoever – and end up entirely moved and appreciative. Swiss writer / director, Petra Volpe, has achieved exactly this with her tremendous women’s lib drama, The Divine Order. Set in a sleepy Swiss village, it’s funny, shocking, poignant and empowering.
It’s 1971, but the mountain village of Schweiz shows no signs of sexual or cultural liberation, and definitely no flicker of female emancipation. The women here – from the teenagers to the young mothers – all dress like they’ve just stepped out from post-war Berlin. Thick, clumpy shoes; course, unflattering fabrics and silk head scarves swamp their youthful frames.
Despite the rest of the world bathing in the glow of free love and glam rock, the women of Schweiz cannot go to work without having the permission of their husband and – most importantly – they still don’t have the right to vote. The menfolk like their wives to be mothers and housewives; anyone who differs from this norm is greeted with suspicion and hostility. The children are brought up to expect their mothers to do everything for them. It’s almost as if the revolutions happening all over the world have simply passed the town by.
At the heart of the film is Nora (Marie Leuenberger), who slowly comes round to the idea that there is more to life than folding socks and packing lunch boxes. Her liberation occurs slowly; she starts by committing the scandal of getting a modern haircut and wearing tight jeans. Soon, she is picking up women’s lib leaflets and starting a local group for female suffrage.
The film is peppered with so many differing emotions throughout. It’s hard, at times, to marry the attitudes and opinions expressed with the era in which the film is set. There are moments of shock – such as when teenage Hanna (Ella Rumpf) is sent to prison for liking boys and rock music – and moments of humour, found in the likes of the “Love Your Vagina” class. It’s dramatic, tender and bittersweet. You absolutely will these young women on in their quest for equality and admire their bravery for taking a stand against antiquated attitudes.
All of the main cast are absolutely brilliant. Sibylle Brunner, as the indomitable, cigar-chomping Vroni, is hysterical. Her sharp tongue and “gung ho” attitude is often what holds the women’s lib group together in its early stages. Maximilian Simonischek is both sweet and frustrating as Nora’s hapless husband, Hans. His initial lack of support is disheartening, but his shock over his inability to give his wife an orgasm is one of the funnier points of the film.
But the stand out was Rachel Braunschweig as Nora’s sister-in-law, Theres. She starts the film as a truly haggard and broken women, subject to domestic abuse and the iron grip of her father-in-law. Watching her blossom throughout the film is truly beautiful and poignant. Her entire stance and posture changes and opens up, and she ends the film as an independent, well-rounded woman.
The women throughout the film have Biblical quotes thrust in their place – “A woman’s place in society is silent” – in a bid to keep them down. The transformation; the hope; and the spirit offered throughout The Divine Order is absolutely uplifting.
Petra Volpe has successfully created a female drama devoid of all tropes or saccharin cliches. It’s clever, funny, dramatic and – most importantly – liberating.
The Divine Order screened at the Glasgow Film Festival 2018.