2015’s Suffragette – about the UK women’s activists who fought for voting rights – concluded with a list of when countries around the world gave women the right to vote. Somewhere towards the end of the list you might have spotted Switzerland, where suffrage wasn’t achieved until the remarkably recent date of 1971.
If that sounds like a story worth hearing, then you’ll want to see The Divine Order. Petra Volpe’s film on the subject, selected as the Swiss entry for this year’s Academy Awards, takes us into a small village in Switzerland and observes the staggering inequalities therein. In this picturesque, secluded spot, women are legally obliged to obey their husbands. To tend to the home and their children while the men earn the money.
Protagonist Nora (Marie Leuenberger) goes along with the status quo – out of inertia as much as anything else – until she’s jolted into action by her niece – aka “the village bike” – Hanna (Ella Rumpf). Nora accompanies Hanna in a trip to the big city and gets her first glimpse at feminism. That seed of activism flowers into full-fledged “women’s lib” when Hanna is sent to a ‘correctional facility’ for her licentious ways. (Nora’s husband refusing her permission to get a part-time job plays its part, too.)
The Divine Order carefully captures the stifling conservatism of Nora’s Swiss village, in stark contrast to the revolutionary spirit engulfing the rest of the world. Nora’s village, shot with muted colours against wintery (and gorgeous) backdrops, feels staid and stale compared to the vividness of the city. The film channels the revelatory experience of one’s eyes opening to injustices that had been subsequently taken for granted. Where Suffragette skipped over many of the challenges of activism by inserting a fictional character into an extant, factual movement, The Divine Order instead addresses the very pertinent question of “How does one go about challenging the status quo?”
Nora ends up recruiting the likes of the elderly Vroni (Sibelle Brunner) – well, okay, Vroni pretty well recruits her – along with newcomer Graziella (Marta Zoffoli) and, eventually, her older sister Theresa (Hanna’s mother, as played by Rachel Braunschweig). While their first attempt at activism, a town meeting of sorts, doesn’t precisely go to plan, the growing group of women gain more traction by staging a “strike” and holing themselves up in the local pizza parlour.
The first half of the film is promising and often thrilling, but as it passes the halfway point it stumbles into the same issues that confront any story engaging with historical activism. By chronicling the unfairness of society and the challenges facing an incipient suffragette movement, Volpe acknowledges the difficulty of achieving significant societal change. But – as in Suffragette – the film wants its audience to walk out of the cinema emboldened by the possibilities of activism, so its third act necessitates unfortunate corner-cutting as we fast-forward to the inevitable success at the ballot box, jostled along by some obligatory drama.
Earlier eras of activism should remind us of the challenges – and potential successes! – in fighting against injustice. The Divine Order does this very well. Where it stumbles is in its reluctance to acknowledge that, hey, maybe granting women the right to vote doesn’t instantly dissipate millennia of ingrained inequality? The film’s lazy closing montage, coyly elaborating upon how much better life has gotten for women in every respect, feels unearned. Some acknowledgement of the costs of activism, some recognition that women are still disadvantaged wouldn’t have marred The Divine Order’s attempts at a happy ending. Rather, it would have reinforced that battles have victories, but wars never end.