Perhaps an unintentional consequence of Switzerland’s longstanding neutral status is a sense of isolation. While the rest of Europe and the West modernize, becoming more tolerant and liberal, Switzerland moves at its own pace. That is one anxiety behind The Divine Order, a Swiss drama about their suffragette movement. Many women received the right to vote in the early twentieth century, but Swiss women still could not vote even in the 1970s. Director Petra Biondina Volpe’s film is conventional, even safe, yet there is raw power in the injustice it unearths.
The counterculture of the 1960s has not made a dent in the small Swiss village where most of the film takes place. Women dress conservatively, no one knows about free love, and men quietly believe that a woman’s place is to take care of family. Nora (Marie Leuenberger) does not think of herself as a radical, but she’s pushed toward the suffragette movement through friends and her personal life. She wants a part time job, you see, and her husband Hans (Maximilian Simonischek) says it’s his right to forbid her from working. This emboldens Nora, so along with her friends Theresa (Rachel Braunschweig) and Vroni (Sibylle Brunner) she organizes a suffragette information in her town. There’s about to be a country-wide vote on the measure, and Nora (correctly) suspects that many local women are secretly in favor of equality.
A lot of The Divine Order’s build-up follows a feel-good structure. There is a sense of quiet anger within the community, yet the central characters are decent, humble folks who are easy to root for. The film also uses gentle human comedy to underscore its points: a sore spot between Nora and Hans is that she is never had an orgasm, and Nora hilariously impugns his ability as a lover when he suggests that maybe women stay home.
In fact, the best scenes involve open, frank discussions of vaginas. A standout moment is when Nora and the others visit a Sacred Yoni clinic in Zurich, and a patient Swedish instructor helps the women take control of their bodies. The film plainly believes in the transformative power of this second-wave feminism, and Volpe films their reactions with eager anticipation. It is marked transition from the film’s opening act, where the oppression is like something out of The Handmaid’s Tale.
The climax involve a miniature riff on the famous general women’s strike that happened in Iceland in 1970. Seemingly all of the women in the town decide to have a massive party, ignoring the gendered roles they’ve been given in their families. This leads to funny sequences where men try and keep their household functioning, and yet Volpe hardly explores the inherent dramatic/comedic possibilities of the premise. Instead, The Divine Order quietly limps to its inevitable ending, where the heroes carve out better, more equitable lives for themselves.
Big aspirations become small changes, conflating the personal and political, yet the movie loses its momentum in favor of something realistic, less ambitious. Maybe the material has more resonance with a Swiss audience, but here it plays like a watered down version of last year’s Suffragette, albeit with better music. Still, if a film about women’s liberation cannot think of a better song for its end credits than Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” then it is time to go back to the drawing board.