With the much-needed shift towards embracing and celebrating female narratives in recent years, we’ve started to see more important stories from the fight for women's equality on our screens. We’re being introduced to new perspectives and new heroes, filling in historical holes and sharing stories from around the world. Petra Volpe’s ‘The Divine Order’, the Best Foreign Film submission from Switzerland for the recent Oscars, ticks all those boxes with a surprising story about women's liberation, how far we have come, and how recently it was all very different.
In 1971, Switzerland was preparing for a referendum on whether women should be allowed to vote. Under Swiss law, the wife was the property of the husband, who dictated what she should be allowed to do. Many women believed that their place was in the home, whether they agreed or not. In a small country village, housewife Nora (Marie Leuenberger) listens to the mutterings of dissent against the patriarchy and begins to organise the women of the town to convince the men to vote "yes" for their rights. However, if the tide is going to turn, Nora and her supporters are going to have to fight to turn it.
It shows my ignorance at how shocked I was at the social-political backdrop in ‘The Divine Order’, that women's rights in Switzerland were so constricted as recently as four decades ago. This is, in many ways, the best part of Volpe’s film, introducing her audience to an important part of her country’s history, even better when weaved through such a gorgeous character piece as this. Vople both writes and directs ‘The Divine Order’, allowing for a personal singularity in its storytelling approach. Her screenplay is mostly a delight, though it falls into occasional drama clichés and presents the men as a little one-dimensional (though let’s be honest, considering the subject manner, that’s probably an entirely justified move). Her direction though is really excellent, a beautiful blend of sweeping scope and crystal-clear moments of intimacy. By focusing on Nora and the women around her rather than the full scope of the womens lib movement in the country, we’re given open and generous eyes to see everything through, allowing us to celebrate Nora’s journey of political and sexual discovery and cheer her on when things get in the way. Added into the mix is a great selection of historical footage from the period and a killer soundtrack of women's anthems, in many cases used better than ever before to stirring effect.
Women are so much the heart of this film, a statement of empowerment that goes from their rights for equality to their right to personal fulfilment. It’s impossible not to get behind them because everything feels so emotionally authentic - moments that would have been played for laughs in the hands of a man - such as Nora, her sister-in-law Theresa (Rachel Braunschweig) and elderly comrade Vroni (Sibylle Brunner) ending up in a womens sex class - are so delicately handled by Volpe, who allows the comedy to come through their shared experience (with them rather than at them), while at the same time, watching them discover the beauty of their own sexuality, being a deeply moving moment. And the female voice extends further than Volpe, with almost the entire creative team behind the camera comprised of women. Some might say this doesn’t make that much of a difference, but honestly there’s just something so thrilling about seeing women tell their own stories: an authenticity, a care and an uncompromising drive that even for this 30-something male feels wonderfully empowering to watch.
And that extends into the cast. Marie Leuenberger leads this ensemble with spark, energy and generosity as Nora, carefully tracking her journey from a figure in the background to a driving force. All of the women in this film absolutely kill it, feeding off their collected energy as actors working on something that feels important, and Volpe has made sure that even the smallest characters are given the space they need with actors of great talent. They’re also as unforgiving in their performances as the film often is, balancing the comedy with some deeply difficult moments, especially Rachel Braunschweig, with Theresa often pushed into impossible situations to choose between her husband, her daughter and herself. The men are also wonderful, even though they’re often utterly reprehensible, dangling duty and children in front of their wives along with a constant threat of retaliation. As Nora’s husband Hans, Maximilian Simonischek finds nuances within the conflict of wanting to do what is morally right and not go against the tide, a battle he fights first against Nora and ultimately with her.
Women are so much the heart of this film, a statement of empowerment that goes from their rights for equality to their right to personal fulfilment.
‘The Divine Order’ has all the hallmarks of a standard historical comedy-drama, but something about Petra Volpe’s approach lifts it into something quite special. It’s equal parts moving, hysterical, upsetting, inspiring and bolstering, beautifully made and performed. It highlights an important story in the battle for women's rights that’s still very much being fought, and reminds us how important the telling of such stories is, especially in the hands of female artists and storytellers. This is a gorgeous, uplifting film that reminds you of the work done and the work ahead, and celebrates this victory in 1971 for the women of Switzerland.