Skip to main content
film review

The Divine Order (2016).Daniel Ammann

"We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: 'I want something more than my husband and my children and my home.'" So wrote Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique, a watershed book of second-wave feminism and a rallying call to America's disgruntled housewives.

An early scene in Petra Volpe's new, rabble-rousing feminist feature, The Divine Order, shows Friedan's polemic trading hands, its title and tagline translated into German. The palm it's being pressed into is Nora's (Marie Leuenberger), a wife and mother in a small Swiss town in 1971. Dear, placid, quiet Nora who may as well be a spacetime dimension apart from the sexual revolution of Haight-Ashbury, the May, 1968 upheavals, and the revelatory pages of Our Bodies, Ourselves.

The tides of the second wave lap at Nora's feet just as her niece Hanna (Ella Rumpf) is imprisoned for wanting to run away with her older boyfriend. Nora herself is feeling cloistered at home and suggests to her husband (Maximilian Simonischek) that she get a part-time job. As Swiss law dictates, she will need written permission from the man of the house to work outside of it. What was it that Gloria Steinem said? "The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off"?

The film's opening scene shows Nora astride her bicycle, the winding road before her and her face open and calm, even happy. Later, she will lay languidly in bed with the pamphlets given to her by "women's libbers." The scene is played as a seduction, Nora rolling in the sheets not with her husband, but with her new lover, politics. The camera frames her bare feet twiddling carefree as her eyes take in the words that will crack her perspective wide open. That it's 1971 is no small detail. In February of that year, Switzerland's male citizens will vote as to whether or not their female counterparts deserve the same right.

With all the verve of a woman who's just awoken to her worth, Nora and her ragtag group of countryside feminists will bring the revolution to their small town. Nora is joined in her public campaigning for women's right to vote by an older woman Vroni (Sibylle Brunner) who ran a local restaurant until her husband ran it more pugnaciously into the ground, Hanna's mother Theresa (Rachel Braunschweig) who wants to win back her daughter through politics, and an Italian émigré named Graziella (Marta Zoffoli) who has bought Vroni's restaurant and has the exotic distinction of being divorced.

The Divine Order plays up the fun of feminist empowerment with its anthems (You Don't Own Me, Respect), and lightens the tension with a modern-woman makeover for Nora. However, a trip to Zurich verges on the hokey when the women encounter a Swedish guru – flowy caftan and all – who encourages them to embrace their inner sexual goddess and practice saying "clitoris" with pride. The scene is so over the top that the movie itself feels as embarrassed by aspects of women's lib as Nora and her friends. Or as contemptuous of it as their foes. But, it's a small slip into the cartoonish for a film that cleverly navigates the contentions and tempers of women's rights.

By the film's close, and after the historic vote, it's ultimately up to each woman to decide for herself what her fulfilment looks like. They went up against a conservatism that believes women's liberation is an affront to the divine order – and what they won was the right to ask what more they wanted.