Film Review: The Divine Order Tells an Uneven but Moving Feminist Story

Pop quiz: which Western nation was the last to grant suffrage to women? You might be inclined to guess the U.S. (since, after all, it took our ancestors way too long to get the 19th Amendment written up) or a socially-conservative country like Italy. But the correct answer is actually Switzerland – the supposedly progressive paradise that regularly ranks near the top of just about every quality-of-life ranking out there. Swiss women, it turns out, only gained suffrage after a 1971 referendum on the subject came out in their favor; in some cantons, moreover, they weren’t allowed to fully exercise this privilege until after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Image courtesy of Kino Lorber.

The fact that a “developed” nation took so long to undertake such a basic reform is an anomaly just begging for an explanation. And in The Divine Order, Petra Volpe tries to provide one through the fictional (but based on reality) story of Nora (Marie Leuenberger), a woman who undergoes a political and emotional awakening in the lead-up to the 1971 vote. When we first meet her, Nora is apparently living the good life. She lives in a peaceful rural village, has a loving family, and works a stable job as a housekeeper. Then two things happen. First, a group of pro-suffrage activists gives her a German translation of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. And second, her husband Hans (Max Simonischek) refuses to let her apply for a job as a secretary—because “people will say I’m not strong enough to support our family on my own.”

You can probably figure out what happens next—Nora turns from dutiful housewife into outspoken suffragist—but don’t let that turn you off. Because for at least the first half of the movie, Volpe overcomes her story’s predictability with the contrast she establishes between it and the way she tells it. She sets the film to a whimsical soundtrack and often inserts shots of picturesque mountain landscapes, as though to lull you into thinking you’re watching a promotional tourist video. Yet this idyllic atmosphere also ends up framing the storyline’s most disquieting moments, like a scene where several women tell Nora that “our husbands” are the only reason they aren’t also openly canvassing for suffrage. Swiss men, Volpe suggests, took so long to give women suffrage because they proved oblivious to male privilege and the inequities it provoked in the status quo – just as the film’s pretty imagery and music could easily numb you to the bigotry pervading its accompanying plot. (It’s a testament to how far our society still has to go that this notion of male obliviousness remains relevant.)

Sadly, similarly thoughtful insights are nowhere to be found in the film’s second half. There, Volpe wastes a fair amount of time dragging us through a series of under-developed, tonally-disparate subplots. (Think Lysistrata-esque sexual comedy mixed with soap opera-worthy couple showdowns.) And when she finally reaches the story’s conclusion—namely, a hasty three-minute montage proclaiming that the purportedly chauvinist village men eventually vote in favor of suffrage and that “Women should stay at home!” Hans abruptly becomes a model male feminist post-referendum—Volpe all but nullifies the effort she initially put into showing just how difficult it can be to alter entrenched gender mores. Volpe understandably doesn’t want to leave her audience depressed or bored, but in light of just how somber and focused she makes the movie’s first part, her haphazard attempts at inspiration in the second part prove rather unpalatable.

Still, the good things about The Divine Order ultimately outweigh its deficiencies. The performances, for one, are excellent, with Leuenberger being a particularly apt choice for the lead role. And more importantly, while it might be tempting to pigeonhole this movie as a “women’s movie,” Volpe makes an earnest (if sometimes flawed) effort to show that the gender mores limiting Nora also affect Hans—that expectations that women remain submissive go hand in hand with overly macho conceptions of masculinity. One year after an election that saw the triumph of an unrepentant sexual predator, The Divine Order thus serves as a reminder that the fight for gender equality is one that ought to concern men and women alike. That, if nothing else, is why this movie will leave a meaningful impression.

The Divine Order opens today (Friday, November 17) at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Andrew Emerson
Andrew Emerson