The Divine Order (Die göttliche Ordnung)

Switzerland (2017) Dir. Petra Volpe

It’s sad to see inequality for women is still an issue in the 21st century. Whether driven by religion or sheer pig headedness, one would hope we’d have advanced since the dark old days that saw the need for suffragist movements, one of the most important of the last century, but as this film attests, some territories were still slow to pick up the baton.

1970 and the sexual revolution, Black Power and women’s lib happening in Europe and the west somehow bypassed Switzerland, where women were still denied the vote. In a sleepy little village housewife Nora Ruckstuhl (Marie Leuenberger) is bored of domestic life, waiting on her two sons, husband Hans (Maximilian Simonischek) and father-in-law Gottfried (Peter Freiburghaus) and yearns to get a job, which Hans won’t allow.

When trying to help her niece Hanna (Ella Rumpf) meet her boyfriend in the city, Nora is introduced to the feminists’ campaign ahead of the 1971 referendum to allow women to vote. Having befriended elderly rebel Vroni (Sibylle Brunner) and divorced Italian pub owner Graziella (Marta Zoffoli) both keen to see change, Nora finds herself fronting the pro-women’s vote campaign in her own village.

There are points in this film where it felt like a Swiss version of Made In Dagenham due to a moment at the half way mark where the women decide to go on strike, leaving their husbands to shack up at Graziella’s pub. The fallout sees angry men facing the indignity of having to make their own dinner which they take out on Hans for not keeping “his woman” in line, just like in the aforementioned Brit flick.  

Sadly, these similarities are not a case of lazy scripting by writer-director Petra Volpe but a reflection of the attitudes of this era, which no doubt still exists in some households to this day. The Divine Order is set just a few years after Dagenham but whilst that was about equal pay, at stake here is something far greater for women, though none the less important in taking steps towards equality.

Volpe tries to keep the mood light inasmuch as there is no male-on-female violence or extreme sexism, but in driving the message home she is able to root in it the narrow-minded patriarchal control adhered to through ignorance. The knife is plunged in a little deeper as this is played out not on the public political stage where obfuscation would win out, rather in the average home where opposition to such oppressive attitudes needs to be nurtured.

Nora is as average a housewife as you can get, plain unassuming looks, busy about the house with rarely a moment to herself. That Nora needs Hans’ permission to get a job informs us the dichotomy of the working mother is an alien concept in her village. Sister-in-law Teresa (Rachel Braunschweig) has it much harder, with alcoholic farmer husband Werner (Nicholas Ofczarek) ruling the household with an iron hand.

Young Hanna is seen as a troublesome rebel, locked in her room for having a boyfriend which Theresa feels useless to help her with. When Nora takes Hana to the city to meet her boyfriend, the cheeky teen jumps on his motorbike and they head off into the sunset. Disturbingly, Werner has Hanna sent to a teen home as a result and when she runs away from there, she is sent to juvenile prison.

This is just a sample of what Nora and the few women she has onside are up against. At a public rally at the pub, a straw poll is held with the majority voting against the motion but only because the wives were too scared to speak up. Hans also lets rip at Nora for embarrassing him in public despite saying he would support her, then does nothing when Nora is jeered and attacked.

Outside of the village the national opinion is that the “majority” of women don’t want the vote – because a man said so – though the marches in Zurich would suggest otherwise. It’s during one march Nora, Graziella and Vroni attend a “Love Your Vagina” workshop hosted by Swedish hippy Indra (Sofia Helin) in which she explains that each shape of a woman’s nether regions resembles an animal, Nora’s being a tiger (natch).

Luckily, this doesn’t undermine the seriousness of the central issue and Volpe continues to build up support and sympathy for Nora and co. by making the men as impossible as ever, but also exposing their weaknesses without their women to “look after” them. However, one area that needed further development involves Vroni who proves vital to the cause in an unexpected way.

Her backstory is revealed in a passionate speech in the third act, but really should have been explored more as her decades long support for the vote comes with a history that could have been the main galvanising launch point for Nora’s campaign much earlier in the game, not near the end. Vroni is arguably the most fascinating character out of a line-up of tropes, including a pompous Ann Widdecombe-esque old biddy happy to toe the patriarchal line.

Volpe never loses sight of the story she is telling, and lets the camera do this as much as the dialogue does, capturing the cast in a completely unaffected and natural way, their performances conveying so much. The ‘70’s aesthetic is neatly replicated, from the dour austerity of the mercantile village to the vibrancy of Zurich, interspersed with genuine news footage from the era to remind us the sad truth behind the fiction.  

It’s probably lazy to suggest The Divine Order is a Swiss cousin to Made In Dagenham as that doesn’t give it enough credit as a good film in its own right, yet these comparisons between both definitely make for a nice double bill on the subject of female equality. Volpe shows a knack for zeitgeist movies and I hope she continues in this direction, perhaps with a bit more character study.