Film Review: ‘The Divine Order’ Is a Feel-Good Feminist Drama

Earlier this fall, “Battle of the Sexes” revisited a famous 1970s event that became a referendum on women’s rights. Now, that turbulent time period is once again the focus of Petra Volpe’sThe Divine Order“, an award-winning new release which chronicles a battle of the sexes of a different sort. In its opening montage, we see recognizable archival footage from Woodstock, the Black Power movement, the sexual revolution and the various student protests. But most importantly, the women’s liberation movement is also mentioned, which provides the central conflict in Volpe’s compelling look at the struggle for women’s right to vote in Switzerland.

We often think of Switzerland as a bastion of progressive attitudes and liberalism, but that wasn’t the case in 1971. Nora (Marie Leuenberger) could certainly attest to that fact in her quaint countryside village. There, she lives with her husband and two sons, doing the cooking, cleaning and general housekeeping as required of women. Though she experiences intermittent boredom, she accepts her role with few complaints. But when a group of local women decide to stir up the community with a women’s suffrage movement, she starts to rethink the so-called “divine order” of the sexes. Before long, she becomes the face of the movement, which causes trouble for her family ahead of an impending public vote on the issue that could change her life and the course of history.

Indeed, “The Divine Order” is largely the story of Nora, who gradually comes into her own and asserts her independence. As played by Marie Leuenberger, she is a model of domesticated civility that hides a tiger waiting to be unleashed (a cheeky reference that will make sense to those who have seen the film). And Leuenberger conveys her character’s growth with noteworthy skill.

Despite the greater social relevance, the film is truly at its best as an intimate character study. And Volpe’s script astutely highlights this, by emphasizing the importance of individual responsibility in achieving a greater good. Among the ensemble, there are several memorable characters representing a spectrum of opinions on women’s suffrage. In particular, Rachel Braunschweig is a standout as Nora’s sister, a conservative mother who upholds the patriarchy but learns the error of her ways. The male characters too, are given enough enough nuance and depth to add to the complexity of the debate.

On that note, the film misses out on a opportunity to delve deeper into a key section of the society. Namely, there is one main antagonist female character who staunchly believes that voting rights for women would be categorically undesirable. Unfortunately, she isn’t afforded the same complexity as her more forward-thinking female peers.

“The Divine Order” aims instead for the feel-good vibes of defiant sisterhood. And it certainly achieves this, providing entertaining heroism in a colorful, authentic 70s setting. But ultimately, by evading some of the serious threats they likely had to overcome, the film is merely heartwarming without inspiring the rousing spirit of activism it depicts.

“The Divine Order” is now playing in select theaters.

GRADE: (★★★)

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