THE DIVINE ORDER (Die Gottliche Ordnung). Marie Leuenberger, Max Simonischek, Rachel Braunschweig, Marta Zoffoli, and Sibylle Brunner. Directed by Petra Volpe. Rated M (Mature themes and sex). 97 min.
This subtitled Swiss comedy-drama tells the story of a young housewife, who organises the women of her town to fight for the right to vote. It was Switzerland’s nomination in the 2018 Academy Awards category for Best Foreign Film of the year. The title of the film refers to the arguments put forward by Swiss political and religious leaders against allowing women to vote. The movie is set in 1971 when Swiss women were still fighting for the right to vote, and ten years before the principle of gender equality was recognised formally in Switzerland’s legal constitution.
Nora (Marie Leuenberger) lives dutifully with her husband, Hans (Max Simonischek), her two sons, and her father-in-law in a remote rural village in Switzerland. She spends most of her days washing, cooking and caring for her family, and trying to meet the demands of an irritable and domineering father-in-law. She is told by her husband that she shouldn’t look for part-time work, that she wants. At the time, refusal to a wife was a privilege granted to a husband by Swiss law.
Nora is well accepted in the town until she begins to campaign publicly for women’s right to vote. She has to convince the other women that her cause is just, and the women have to convince the men in the town, because they are the only ones who are allowed to vote. Nora’s action brings personal humiliation down upon her, and her marriage is threatened, but she persists in her resolve. The women go on strike and refuse to do housework until the vote is taken, and the men learn from their newfound awareness of the women who live with them, and around them.
Marie Leuenberger brings dignity and warmth to the role of Nora. She doesn’t at first immediately grasp the meaning of all the issues that concern her, but then comes to fully appreciate their significance and relevance to her life. Having done so, she acts by embarking on the daunting task of enthusing those around her. This is a relatively uncomplicated film that tells us movingly and dramatically what can occur when disenfranchised women decide to speak up, and it cleverly navigates the wider meaning of women’s rights. Nora’s fight was not only to give women the freedom to vote, which was granted formally to Switzerland in 1971, but hers was also a fight against sexism, which was a major force operating in the village against change.
This movie is a little like “Suffragette” (2015) which was a British period drama about a group of women who banded together as a protest movement to fight for equality and the right of women to vote in the early 1900’s. However, that film was a tough movie about the things women did in a particular period of Britain’s history to claim their rights. This film speaks to the larger issue of the subjugation of women in Swiss society, and how women overcame the influence of the men (and some women) in their village, who opposed them. Nora attracts a wide variety of people to her cause. They include a restless sister who is a possible victim of domestic abuse (Rachel Braunschweig), a widowed Italian ex-cafe owner (Sibylle Brunner), and an independent, fashion-conscious Italian worker (Marta Zoffoli) who has a local admirer. The film is an ensemble piece filled with characters who are surviving as best they can in an isolated corner of the world, and it is about gender equality and family rights, as much as it is about the right of women to vote.
The movie has contemporary relevance at a time when the power of men is being debated strongly, especially as it is exercised and practised in a sexual context. The film adds humour, and pathos to the relevant arguments, and it shows that attitudes can be changed by the courage and determination of those willing to take a stand. The film is directed gently by Petra Volpe, who guides her movie to explore deep issues in an entertainingly engaging way.
It shows real people leading complex lives, and, in doing that, it humanises and enlivens the issues it raises. It also gives viewers an intimate look into the politics, family drama, and history of Switzerland, at the time of great pressure on that country to change - which it (eventually) did.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released March 22nd., 2018