Petra Volpe’s The Divine Order earned this bold female filmmaker a shot at an Academy Award, selected as the Swiss entry for Best Foreign Language film in 2017 and is a must see feminist film that serves as both an inspiration and cautionary tale to us all. Now available on NETFLIX and AMAZON PRIME, it dramatizes the struggle of women in Switzerland to gain the right to vote. It should be noted that after a long fought battle, American women won that basic right in 1920, a right that is enshrined in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. By comparison, women in Switzerland were not able to vote in elections until 1971. That is not a typo. You read that correctly. Yep, 1971.
The film portrays Nora, a young housewife in the Swiss Alps, who devotes all of her efforts to her husband, two sons, and a difficult father-in-law. Trouble ensues when she announces she wants to work outside of the home. Her husband suggests they have another child. When Nora persists, her husband, a product of this deeply patriarchal society, flat out forbids her to pursue this goal, reminding her he has the legal right to prevent her from entering the workforce. This is the most chilling scene in the movie. The idea that the law could give a man such power over a woman is a reminder of how vital it is that we remain politically engaged lest we regress to that type of society. His refusal sparks her activism as does her growing knowledge of the dawning worldwide women’s movement. When Nora ventures outside her small village, she meets women demonstrating for women’s suffrage. They give her flyers and in a wonderful touch a copy of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique.” Although Betty Friedan later became a controversial figure in the women’s movement, it’s still remarkable the worldwide influence that book achieved is being featured in contemporary cinema. PETER DREIER has written an interesting piece for the HUFFINGTON POST about the book and its influence on women’s equality.
The Divine Order depicts how some women support the patriarchal system. Nora refuses to contribute money to an woman headed organization to defeat a referendum granting women this right. Her defiance attracts other women to join her cause. Nora soon finds herself on an odyssey that compels her to leave her small village and life behind. She temporarily loses a husband and family, but in doing so, her world opens up and becomes more fulfilling and meaningful. Without giving too much away, the remainder of the film deals with the heroic actions of Nora and other similarly fed up women and the upheaval to their lives that they must endure to gain a right, which should have been theirs all along.
Watching this film stirs up reflections on our past year and the revelations that have come out regarding the mistreatment of women in both the film industry and the workplace at large. It feels like we’ve regressed in the United States in so many areas regarding civil rights and equality, but this film is a call to arms. Rights that we have as American women have come to depend on for a generation are now under attack in ways most would have deemed unthinkable. The right to vote is fundamental and must not be compromised. Once a group has been disenfranchised, they lose their voice and no longer retain agency over their lives. Although American women are not in any immediate danger of losing the right to vote, the film is a reminder that we have to continue the fight for equality in all spheres of our lives. It’s a sobering thought and one that demonstrates the power of cinema to inform us of recent history, largely forgotten. In doing so let’s hope it will also help us shape the future.
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