“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”-Galatians 3:28
The Divine Order is a Swiss movie that unfolds in 1971 in a small mountainside town as the country prepares to decide whether or not women should vote. The majority of the film focuses on Nora, wife of the hottest guy in town and unofficially anointed leader of his colleagues at work. Things are done unquestioningly until Nora notices that in the life of her family, women get the short end of the stick for doing normal things. She gets verbally slapped out of complacency during a visit to town and begins to confront why she has so little autonomy. Gradually she begins to take more noticeable stands in her home and community until it causes a ripple effect in town. The rest is history.
The Divine Order is Petra Biondina Volpe’s second film and a crowd pleaser. It may be my first Swiss film. It is a foreign film so expect subtitles. Volpe balances the lightness of many British films that deal with social issues without glossing over the potential for anger and danger that change brings out in people who feel threatened by it. There are many unexpected, subtle touches to the narrative that distinguish it from films like Suffragette, which matches the bleakness of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, or Together, which uses the political awakening as an awkward joke that does not really work in the real world and rushes towards a happy ending.
Nora likes her life. She does not transform from meek housewife to terrorist. Her husband isn’t the worst. Her requests are reasonable, which lends to the credibility of The Divine Order and provides an implicit explanation why she does not back down. She transforms from reticent opposition and stumbling speechmaker to a quietly confident countercultural voice that speaks the truth. Because she is not the traditional image of boldness yet shows an open resolve missing among her counterparts, she is able to garner support from a mostly conservative group of women, who, like Nora, never gave much thought to politics or the unfair effect that it has on their daily lives. The shock of the village is that her husband may be considered the de facto leader, but she is the one who is prepared to take the lead and be brave.
The Divine Order would not work if it were not for the early silent scenes of Nora easily riding her bike up and down the mountains, which communicates a silent strength and confidence in her physical presence that also exists in her soul. When she secretly looks at magazines of women on adventures throughout the world, in the same way that men secretly look at naked women, she seizes upon the images, but not the fantasy of travel, but the right to flaunt what she already has-an ability to navigate a rough terrain with grace and ease. Her impromptu makeover discards some aspects of her earlier appearance and embraces others. She always had strong legs, but now she is thrilled to feel her limbs and move freely. Later she takes a more intimate inventory of her physical self, which in turn makes it possible to create a bridge for her husband to cross to understand her better and enjoy communion.
The role of sex may seem like a tertiary one used to spice up the rhetoric of The Divine Order, but it is actually a crucial one. The men have hidden sex lives that the women know about, but no one discusses. The women later use the men’s shame over their illicit activities as ammunition to deflect opposition to their movement and get begrudging financial support. The men are so concerned about maintaining their women’s monogamy and controlling them that it never occurs to them, but it does occur to the women, that everyone could be having way more fun with each other than against each other. In the end, Hanna’s vision of being a couple is represented as the only one without internal problems although it may be problematic for other reasons. The underlying goal of the film is for men and women to be naked and unashamed as in Genesis 2:25 and to evoke a sexual joy found in Song of Solomon instead of the grim obligation to remain faithful without the fundamental desire of wanting to be faithful because each makes the other happy. Inequality creates discord and division, and equality creates harmony and union.
The intergenerational friendships among women provide a historical texture to The Divine Order without being pedantic and an encouraging contrast to the friendships and familial relationships among men, which are superficial, onerous and competitive. Feminism opens the door for men to comfort each other and permits the men to question why they accept being unhappy as a way of life because it is how things are done. One silent, visual moment is the way that one husband takes great pains to make a pie for his family and gets lost in the moment until he is interrupted with grumbling and mockery. The men are so busy bullying each other to maintain the status quo that they never ask themselves if the status quo is worth maintaining or hell for them too. The anger is rooted in outrage that it never occurred to them to express their dissatisfaction with life, but just stoically put up with it. So they feel attacked on two sides: by expectations to maintain the status quo and by demands to change it. They feel less than the women in their lives and lash out to feign a fictional superiority.
The Divine Order depicts a world where potential feminist allies and advocates are intimidated into silence and drafted as enforcers of the status quo while simultaneously betraying the alleged benefits touted by its adherents: protection, safety, love. This silence is interpreted as consent, but when the silence is finally broken, and dissatisfaction is honestly expressed behind closed doors, it is also not welcomed. It is greeted with shock and backlash, not change in the law. That step is the final one reluctantly taken, which leads to reconciliation and abundant life.
The most under explored, contradictory character is the woman who touts the status quo, but actually is the leader of the civil community and the business world. Is she trying to preserve her monopoly of power by keeping more women out of the men’s domain and/or is she advocating for a fantasy of what life would look like if she could have a different life? Is she a zealot or a hypocrite? The men never revolt against her leadership, but buck against the slightest opposition against the woman closest to them because of verbal assurances of their superiority. She assuages any possible fears of loss of power through lip service, not action, and by swiftly and loudly opposing the women who want more modest gains than she actually possesses. She is the real mystery of the film and life-are women with power who collaborate for oppression aware of their betrayal and contradiction?
Sarah G. Vincent is an infovore who is originally from NYC and has lived in Massachusetts since 1993. She received an A.B., cum laude, in History and Film Studies from Harvard University in 1997 and received a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 2000, where she was also an editor and arts reporter at the Crimson/FM and worked at the Harvard Film Archives. After graduating from Harvard Law School, she published “The Cultural Context of the Shopping Mall: Tension Between The Patron’s Right of Access and the Owner’s Right to Exclude.” She is in a committed, exclusive spiritual relationship with the Triune God and for more information, directs readers to look at the Apostle’s Creed.