Here are some quick U.S. stats: White women won the vote in 1920; some Native American women could vote in 1924, while the rest could not until 1947; Asian American women first voted in 1952; and black women had to wait until the 1960s to freely exercise this fundamental right. But over in Switzerland, largely isolated by the mountainous terrain of the Alps, things moved a bit slower — women’s suffrage came in 1971, overcoming many an opponent.
In the opening scenes of her stirring comic drama The Divine Order, writer-director Petra Volpe collages together images from the U.S. sexual revolution and civil rights movements — turbulent, raucous demonstrations — before plopping us down in 1971 Schweiz, a quiet, rural canton of Switzerland, where time seems to have stood still since the 1940s. We meet Nora (Marie Leuenberger), a wife and mother of two young boys who looks like she’d be right at home in Maria von Trapp’s old Austrian convent. Nora bids her little family farewell and then coasts on her Schwinn up and down the twisty tree-lined roads to her sister-in-law’s farmhouse to help out with housework. On her bicycle, Nora is exuberant and breathless, a winky tip-off to where this story is heading: These two-wheeled freedom machines were, in real life, instrumental to the suffrage movement around the world.
At home, Nora is happily on call 24-7 for her men, both big and small. Yes, her husband, Hans (Maximilian Simonischek), expects her to do the washing and cooking, calls her from the living room to bring him some tea, and gently forbids her from working outside the house as a travel agent, but he also seems genuinely concerned for her happiness — even if he can’t fathom it means she wants equal rights. Hans is a good man, just not one who can immediately envision her as more than she is, which is why it’s so difficult for Nora to jump into the fray of the canton’s burgeoning women’s rights movement, because she sees it at first as a rejection of men.
But the second Nora opens the free pamphlets and books from the local feminists, she’s rapt, so much so that her confused sons must interrupt her from her reading to remind her to make their food. When she asks them to clear their own dishes, their response is both truthful and tragic: “But…we’re boys.” She seems to realize she’s fighting this fight for them as much as for herself. This story isn’t so much about the vote as it is about imagining a future of fulfillment for all, including Nora’s drunken and depressed brother-in-law Werner (Nicholas Ofczarek), who’s stifled by codes of manliness that dictate he must carry on his family’s business.
Volpe depicts Nora’s awakening as an avalanche down the Alps, one that can’t be stopped. The biggest snowball comes from a sex workshop, where she has her own Fried Green Tomatoes Towanda moment and for the first time sees her vagina. “My vagina is a lion,” she says, before Volpe transports us to a nearly surreal dance floor, where Nora sways and thrashes her hair back and forth, while the shards of light reflecting off a disco ball seem almost to emanate from within her body. Though the scene is fantastical bordering on whimsical, Volpe never drops the seriousness of the story. Judith Kaufmann’s cinematographic style favors shadows that frame the faces of these women, and at times her camera pushes in for quick zooms like we’re in a tense Martin Scorsese picture. Only instead of gangsters, we’re watching suffragettes in an impossibly tiny town toil and scheme their way to the right to vote.
Before you go thinking that the Swiss are still behind the times, consider that they now have a female president, after their federal government funded an in-depth study to solve the problem of media bias on gender in reporting on elections. The Divine Order is both a celebration of that accomplishment and a gentle reminder that sometimes it just takes one person to stand up, call bullshit, and get that snowball rolling.
The Divine Order
Written and directed by Petra Volpe
Opens October 27, Film Forum