These days, it would be difficult to deny the appeal of living in an idyllic mountain town where time stands still — the kind of place that’s easily forgotten by the outside world, and where the outside world is easily forgotten in turn. And yet, all the rustic beauty in the world can’t stop Nora (Marie Leuenberger) from feeling like she’s been left behind.
A modest housewife in the postcard-perfect Swiss canton of Appenzell, her days are spent feeding her boorish husband (Max Simonischek), spoiling their two sons, and cleaning up after her old-fashioned father-in-law, who really needs to find a better hiding spot for his porn magazines. The year is 1971, and Nora can feel the fires of change burning all around her, hear the whispers about women’s liberation that are carried up the hills on the wind, but that’s the thing about living in such a quiet corner of the world: Nobody wants to make any noise.
Tempering its folksy charm with a sober sense of what’s at stake (imagine a cross between “Chocolat” and “Norma Rae”), Petra Volpe’s “The Divine Order” is a classically told crowdpleaser about a remote skirmish in the ongoing fight for gender equality. Set in the months leading up to the 1971 election, during which the right to vote was on the federal ballot, the film tells the fictional and unabashedly formulaic story about how one woman’s political awakening inspires an entire village into action.
It’s a delightful process, providing a few easy laughs, some enraging moments of systemic misogyny, and a handful of amusingly broad scenes of sexual empowerment. At one point, a Swedish hippie comes to town and leads a revelatory seminar about yoni power, her class epitomizing Volpe’s gift for marrying broad sitcom humor (old women giggling at vagina hand-puppets!) with pointed social commentary (gender is a prison!). “The Divine Order” isn’t a particularly complicated film — the wide-eyed tone of Nora’s opening narration establishes a Sunday matinee vibe that lingers through the, um, touching final shot — but how complicated does a film about the need for women’s suffrage really need to be?
Of course, sexism is one of those things that’s maddeningly simple in theory and deviously intricate in practice. Nora is little more than an archetype, an ordinary 42-year-old woman who’s never had an orgasm in her life, but Volpe does a fine job of grounding her enlightenment in clear specifics. It starts with a denied request: Nora wants to go back to work, but the man of the house won’t let her. Suddenly, it’s as if a veil has been lifted from her eyes, and every mundane detail of her daily existence becomes evidence of her oppression; suddenly, it doesn’t seem cute that her kids expect her to clean the table every night, or fair that her husband can legally prohibit her from getting a job (back then, Switzerland’s Constitution still granted men that authority over their wives).
Or maybe Nora has seen things that way for a long time, but now she just can’t help but say something about it. So, when she’s publicly confronted by the Dolores Umbridge-like witch who runs the local Anti-Politicization of Women Action Committee, Nora speaks up. It’s an uncomfortable moment, but the show of defiance unlocks something from within the other wives and widows in town. That’s always how justice works: It thaws for what feels like forever and then spills everywhere all at once. It isn’t long before Nora is her village’s de facto head feminist, attracting a wide array of caricatures to her cause (a cheeky spinster, a divorced Italian sexpot, a timid survivor of domestic abuse, etc.). None of the people who join Nora in striking against their husbands are particularly memorable, but it’s fun to watch the solidarity that develops between them, their shared purpose becoming as evocative as the gorgeous white fields that isolate them from the rest of civilization.
It’s hard to watch “The Divine Order” without thinking about Harvey Weinstein, in large part because the disgraced Hollywood kingpin made a fortune by importing inoffensively quaint European movies just like this one. But men like Harvey Weinstein are exactly why Volpe’s film is more than just a bit of self-congratulatory fluff. Yes, there’s something very safe about telling stories about the oppressions of the past, as we often use them to flatter ourselves for how far we’ve come.
At the same time, addressing a right that modern society takes for granted can be a way of drawing attention to the wrongs that continue to plague us. “The Divine Order” is as milquetoast as these things get, but Volpe’s film finds real value by emphasizing process over politics, by glossing over the eventual vote in favor of knuckling down on how one act of courage can spark a blaze that’s big enough to burn the whole system to the ground. That too will make you think of Harvey Weinstein, engulfed by flames and trapped in a Wicker Man of his own making.
“The Divine Order” opens in theaters on Friday, October 27.