The Divine Order is a funny and moving depiction of the courageous fight for equal voting rights of local women in a small, traditional Swiss village in 1970 (yes, 1970!). An irresistible crowdpleaser.
The Divine Order is a great choice as closer of the 2018 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival. It’s not the best film of the season (God’s Own Country gets that gong), but for me it is the most flat-out enjoyable.
The film is set in 1970 in a little backwater of a Swiss town in which nothing much ever changes and social stability is guaranteed. Indeed, the same might be said of Switzerland as a whole at this time – women have still not been granted the right to vote!
This doesn’t bother housewife Nora (Marie Leuenberger), who is content in her traditional role of cooking, cleaning and generally tending to her husband Hans (Maximilian Simonischek), two young sons and an arch-conservative misery-guts of a father-in-law.
That is, until she’s rocked by a series of events, including her teenage niece being incarcerated in an institution for wayward juveniles due to perceived promiscuity, and her husband pouring cold water on her ambition to return to paid work. Fired by a sense of injustice, she joins a tiny group of like-minded women in the town campaigning for female voting rights.
Drawing on all her courage, a terrified Nora speaks in her cause at a town meeting and is subjected to derision, heckling and mockery by the menfolk. One righteous blockhead makes a ludicrous declaration attributing the traditional role of women and the exclusively male right to vote to “the divine order”; hence the title of the film.
Hans refuses to support his besieged wife, and leaves the meeting in shame. However, Nora’s words have been noted by some of the village women, who subsequently join her fight. The town is divided as never before, with stable marriages suddenly lurching towards the rocks, women against women, friend against friend. Things get nasty when a rock is hurled through the window of a room in which the women are holding a campaign strategy meeting.
The narrative follows a familiar trajectory. As in Made in Dagenham and Suffragette, a naïve female protagonist, illuminated as to her subjugation, is inspired to take up the struggle for female empowerment and encounters a hostile, rusted-on patriarchy. We know Nora and her band of sisters are up for a hell of a struggle, but will overcome the odds in the end. It’s not so much the ‘what’ as the ‘how’ that is key here, and the personal fallout for all involved at the resolution of the conflict. Writer-director Petra Volpe applies a gentle and often humorous touch to a volatile situation. She is careful to present the town’s men as ill-educated and threatened but basically decent (in most cases), rather than chauvie pigs ripe for the slaughter.
That said, Volpe’s heart – and ours – is with the women, and of course that’s just as it should be. While their fight for basic equality is the driving force of the film, the political never obscures the human. We identify with these ordinary people who have been forced on to centre stage to wage political war against an unjust, oppressive system whose time should be long gone. And we identify with their sense of being torn between their cause and their family and friends who just want things to stay as they’ve always been.
While the film is conventional in form, the performances, writing and direction are on point, and with the dramatic fundamentals thus firmly in place, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Further, the work is cleverly (and, it seems, effortlessly) infused with the spirit and feel of the late 60s/early 70s, helped along by a small but excellent selection of lyrically appropriate and stirring 60s hits from female artists (eg: Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me and Aretha Franklin’s Respect).
Despite its historical setting, The Divine Order is also topical, the camaraderie and call-to-action of its female characters paralleling that of the #metoo movement. It has a few faults, but they don’t count for much and I see no point in detailing them here. Most importantly, the film is both socially relevant and thoroughly entertaining. All in all, an irresistible crowdpleaser.
Movie Website: https://zeitgeistfilms.com/film/thedivineorder
The Divine Order screening dates (2017-18 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival): ECU Joondalup Pines: 3 Apr-8 Apr 2018, 7.30pm
UWA Somerville: 9 Apr-15 Apr 2018, 7.30pm
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