It might surprise you to learn, in Petra Volpe’s “The Divine Order,” that Switzerland didn’t allow women’s suffrage until 1971. That’s eight years after Iran and Morocco, nine years after Algeria, and more than half a century after the United States passed the 19th Amendment in 1920.
But that’s about all that’s surprising in a film that follows the template of an audience-pleasing, timid fable of female empowerment.
“Woodstock, black power, the sexual revolution, women’s liberation,” intones Nora (Marie Leuenberger) as stock footage of the 1960s and early 1970s passes in a montage. “In 1971 the world was changing. But here at home time stood still.”
A meek hausfrau in a snowglobe-like Swiss village, Nora is resigned to her status quo as a cook, housekeeper, and caretaker for her husband and two boys. But instances of injustice nudge her toward empowerment. After her teenage niece Hanna (Ella Rumpf) runs off to Zurich with her boyfriend while Nora is acting as her chaperone, Nora coincidentally bumps into a pro-suffrage demonstrator who gets her attention and loads her up with feminist literature. When Hanna is apprehended and ends up in a reform school — and then prison — for her free-spiritedness, Nora finds that these books by Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer are starting to make sense.
She starts her own movement, joined slowly and surreptitiously at first by women in town. They are cautious because they have been cowed by tradition, and by male violence — Nora’s sister-in-law Theresa (Rachel Braunschweig) shows up at a meeting with a bruise on her head. But inspired by the long-simmering wrath of the elderly Vroni (Sibylle Brunner), whose brutish husband’s dissipation ruined their restaurant and who now must live on family charity, they go on a Lysistrata-like strike. The difference being that their husbands don’t miss the sex as much as they do the housekeeping.
But powerful forces oppose them. Like Nora’s husband Hans (Max Simonischek), who more or less agrees with Nora in principle but betrays her when it counts because he is spineless in the face of peer pressure. And the imposing Mrs. Dr. Charlotte Wipf (Therese Affolter), who owns the shop in which Hans works and heads the "Anti-Politicization of Women Action Committee." Why is it that in movies like this the ultimate patriarchal power is a woman?
But the chief weakness in the movement, and in the film as well, is Nora herself. Played sweetly by Leuenberger, Nora is endearing but hardly embodies the spirit of her Ibsen namesake. When she says things like “my vagina is a tiger” it’s hard to take her — or the movie — seriously.
THE DIVINE ORDER
Written and directed by Petra Volpe. Starring Marie Leuenberger, Max Simonischek, Rachel Braunschweig, Sibylle Brunner, Marta Zoffoli, Therese Affolter, Ella Rumpf. At Kendall Square. 97 minutes. Unrated (infuriating male entitlement, provocative women’s empowerment lecture). In German and Italian, with subtitles.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.