I heartily recommend that you see “The Divine Order,” one of the best films of 2017, which opens on October 27. Writer-director Petra Volpe has created a superb film that is a new milestone in the cinema’s treatment of the need for the further empowerment of women. It is not pedantic, but a wonderfully entertaining, well-acted film that has humor as well as drama.
When do you think women in Switzerland got the right to vote? Amazingly, it was not until 1971! Volpe sets the scene at the outset by a montage of militant actions in the 1960s and 70s political upheavals, then takes us to a sleepy little Swiss town where none of this has been happening.
The key figure in the story that unfolds is Nora Ruckstuhl, exquisitely acted by Marie Leunenberger, who is leading a typical life as a housewife, looking after her two sons and her husband, who rules the roost under Swiss law that says a husband must give permission for a wife to work. But there have been stirrings in Nora, who would like to achieve something in her own life other than looking after her family, and in addition, her nasty father-in-law who lives with them.
The arc of change begins when she is approached by women campaigning for the right to vote. Nora, her sense of self awakened, begins to get involved. It is a tribute to Leuenberger's performance that we see so much of the step-by-step transformation in Nora’s facial expressions as she begins to confront the problems unleashed by her actions.
Volpe builds her story carefully, detailing what happens with Nora’s astonished husband Hans (played excellently by Max Simonischek), and with other husbands in the village, women who are cowed, and the few who are liberated. There is the counter-campaign against voting rights for women, an issue to be decided by men, and the personal conflicts that arise.
Nora and others find a meeting home in a defunct restaurant taken over by Graziella, a warm and stylish divorced woman from Italy, played sympathetically by Marta Zoffoli, who reopens the place as a pizzeria. An entertaining sequence involves Graziella taking Nora to get a more attractive hairdo and some more with-it clothing, part of her growing transformation.
One of the best scenes involves women gathered to hear a women’s empowerment lecturer talk about getting to know one’s vagina and enjoy sex. An array of vagina sketches illustrates information about matching one’s own to a choice among the amusingly named varieties.
There is further pleasure in seeing how Nora’s husband and sons must start to handle housework as Nora and women of the town go on strike. The film achieves complexity in also dramatizing how men are adversely affected in the established way of life.
Volpe daringly provides an intimate ending of the kind that one is unlikely to find in a less adventurous film. It is a perfect finale to the story she has meticulously constructed and nurtured. “The Divine Order” of the title is shattered by action for change, and the point is made that liberation for women can help men to a happier life as well.
The film is replete with good performances, whether as friend or foe, including one by Sibylle Brunner as Vroni, an older woman whose contribution is pivotal. Ella Rumpf brings rebellious spirit to Hanna, Nora’s non-conformist niece, who is sent to reform school and prison with the complicity of her parents, an event that appalls Nora.
The cinematography by Judith Kaufmann is also notable in that we get a solid visual portrait of the Swiss town chosen as the location and the surroundings of Switzerland’s natural beauty. On all counts “The Divine Order” is a very special film that is entertaining, politically important and emotionally gratifying. A Zeitgeist Films release in association with Kino Lorber. Reviewed October 23, 2017.