by Cynthia Citron
“If women get the vote will they still be home in time to cook dinner?”
This was the sardonic campaign poster promoting a man in Switzerland who was running for office. Not in the 19th century, but near the end of the 20th.
It was a time in Switzerland when men still made all the rules and all the decisions and their wives made all the beds and washed the socks, in quiet servitude and unrelieved oppression.
A new film, submitted by Switzerland for consideration in the Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film, is now making its Los Angeles debut. It is called “The Divine Order” and it details the battle waged by the women in a small, beautiful village in the middle of nowhere for their emancipation and their right to vote.
A young woman named Nora (played by Swiss actress Marie Leuenberger) lives modestly with her husband Hans (Max Simonischek) and their two young school-age sons. Hans’ unpleasant father lives with them as well, complaining about everything.
Having served as a virtual servant to her family for all the years of her marriage, Nora has grown a bit restless and decides she would like to apply for an available position at a local travel agency. But Hans forbids it.
Shortly thereafter, on an errand in a nearby village she comes upon a table where a woman is offering pamphlets supporting women’s liberation. Seeing that Nora appears to be interested, the woman supplies her with an armful of persuasive literature, including a book by Betty Friedan. All of which Nora reads diligently.
Then, at a public meeting in her own village, she meets an elderly woman named Vroni who is apparently the only supporter of the upcoming national referendum on voting rights for women. All the other women present, and the men, contend that “Women don’t want the right to vote.”
Teaming up with this new friend, Nora begins the massive effort of organizing an “informational event” to discuss the issue, and wisely advertises that free pizza and beer will be provided.
Although everyone comes to the meeting, all the men deride the idea of women seeking equality and the women are too intimidated to speak up.
They have been admonished by the crusty female President of the Anti-Politicization of Women Action Committee that “Equality of the sexes is a crime against nature” and “Women in politics are simply against the Divine Order” and “What they call ’emancipation’ is in reality a curse for us women.
Disheartened, Nora dares the women to call a strike, and she arranges for them to gather in the local restaurant for meals and then not go home to their families, but go upstairs to sleep in the restaurant’s large attic. And she is overwhelmed by the number of women who show up to do that.
In this new venue the women have time to amuse themselves with cards and other games, and also to examine their lives and contemplate changes. So that later, when some of the husbands barge in to drag their wives home, they discover that their women have acquired some strength to change their own attitudes and behavior.
There are a number of subplots which allow the viewer to get to know the women individually, and to rejoice with them when they achieve their goal. But even though the referendum passed in 1971, it took another ten years before Swiss women were actually able to vote.
Ironically, their sister suffragettes in America had been granted the same right some 60 years earlier, in 1920.
This film, “The Divine Order” by Petra Volpe is exquisite, not only for the earnestness of the actors, but also for the snowy beauty of the winter landscape in Switzerland. Beautifully directed and gorgeously shot, this engaging film is a must-see.
It opens tomorrow, Friday, November 17, at Laemmle’s Royal and Playhouse 7 and in many other theaters in Los Angeles shortly thereafter.