Film Review: The Divine Order

Vox Pop As Engine Of Reeducation

4 min read
The Divine Order
Down with patriarchy! Viva la pâtisserie! (Zeitgeist Films)
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The personal is absolutely political, and idealistic revelations do make for terrific revolutionary metaphor. But something called “peer pressure” is often the most direct catalyst for truly meaningful social change. Swiss screenwriter-director Petra Volpe deftly illustrates the subversive power of communal coercion in the Swiss suffrage dramedy The Divine Order.

The film’s premise is absurd—a relatively utopic European union forbids the fair sex the right to vote through
the early ’70s—but the history behind this cinematic narrative is legit. The men of Switzerland first passed a referendum allowing women to vote in 1971, and it wasn’t ratified throughout the country until the ’90s. There, women still needed their husband’s explicit consent to work outside the home until 19-freaking-84.

From the transcendently ugly ’70s wardrobe (big ups, Linda Harper) to Annette Focks’ stellar soundtrack—featuring Lesley Gore’s rendition of “You Don’t Own Me” and Aretha Franklin on “Respect”—to Volpe’s classicist indie dramedy script,
The Divine Order earnestly portrays a muted version of what’s possible. Traumatic events close to home lead stay-at-home mom Nora (the transfixing Marie Leuenberger) to lose patience with her marriage to handsome, sympathetic factory foreman Hans (Maximilian Simonischek).

Drowning in Hans’ normative machismo, her father-in-law’s nostalgic misogyny and her cherubic son’s mere compulsory sexism, Nora stumbles onto nascent second-wave feminism. One meet-cute with an activist in the city and a couple of late nights spent with a German translation of Betty Friedan’s
The Feminine Mystique and some pamphlets on the patriarchy and Swiss marital law, and the hook is set.

Like the faintly smiling sun from a fable,
The Divine Order gradually warms its audience to its purpose, persuading us to take off our coats and sit a while. Volpe skillfully builds the drama to a crescendo before ramping up the Chocolat meets Norma Rae vibe with a women’s strike and significant subsequent personal and political drama.

The town’s leading anti-suffragette, Dr. Mrs. Charlotte Wipf (Therese Affolter), convinces Hans’ brother Werner (Nicholas Ofczarek) that his teenage daughter’s sexuality is criminal. When Werner sends Hanna to prison, Theresa doesn’t speak up. As apparent opposites, Werner’s wife Theresa (Rachel Braunschweig) and rebellious daughter Hanna (Ella Rumpf) play host to a veritable Russian nesting doll of gendered mores and norms.

Theresa has nearly willed herself out of independent existence while Hanna is downright aggressive in her allegiance to her own wants and needs. Given 10 seconds to assign Switzerland an adjective, many would likely choose some variant of “neutral” in tribute to Swiss foreign policy. After coming out (loudly) in support of women’s right to vote, Nora finds her rural popularity threatened but also attracts unlikely comrades.

Feisty widow Vroni (Sibylle Brunner) and Italian divorcée Graziella (Marta Zoffoli) populate her cheering section. As for red wine, it certainly doesn’t hurt the village recruitment numbers. After fits and starts embracing the “Heidi of the non-gendered right to vote” character, when Nora’s son is bullied because she’s a “women’s libber,” it seems certain that the campaign will lose her. Then a repentant Theresa reappears.

Change can be scary—and not just for the generation that feels left behind. At a protest in the city, Nora, Vroni and Theresa participate in a women’s rights march and attend a speculum party; feminist consciousness-raising and examining your vagina as a group activity apparently went hand in hand in the ’70s. Genitalia observation expert Eden (German TV star Sofia Helin) passes out mirrors and displays her naturalistic paintings of vulvas; some are the spitting image of a tiger or a butterfly, while others bear more than a passing resemblance to, say, a bunny or a wolf.

As for reasons to revisit the history of suffrage, what springs to mind is the sense of cultural agency and urgency fostered by a series of recent sexual harassment accusations, the various responses of those accused and the growing sense that public disclosure of harassment and assault can indeed be revolutionary acts. If you can, invite your spiritual grandmother—whether that’s actually your mom’s mom or not—to go watch
The Divine Order with you.

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