The long-fought battle for women’s suffrage in America ended in 1920, but it wasn’t until 1971 that Switzerland granted its female population the right to vote. “The Divine Order” revisits this fight for equality through the fictional lens of a housewife in one of the country’s remote villages, where her mounting desire for autonomy and actualization is opposed by backward-thinking cretins of both genders. Though the film’s feel-good construction undercuts its ability to surprise, Petra Volpe’s cine-history lesson remains a mainstream crowd-pleaser adept at inspiring and amusing in equal measure.
Nora (Marie Leuenberger) spends her days doing laundry, making beds and vacuuming around her domineering father-in-law, and her nights cooking and caring for husband Hans (Max Simonischek) and their two sons. At first, see seems agreeably submissive to this life of routine servitude. But unfamiliar stirrings of outrage over her place in society — and that of her female compatriots — soon begin to percolate, triggered by two concurrent incidents: Hans’ refusal to allow her to get a job (a privilege granted to him by law); and her free-spirited teenage niece Hanna (Ella Rumpf) being sent to prison for wanting to be with her older, long-haired boyfriend.
These twin injustices speak to the larger problem of women’s subjugation in Swiss society, the wrongheadedness of which is thrown into sharp relief by the momentous counterculture sweeping the rest of the globe. It’s not long before Nora is standing up to the close-minded leader of her social club, Mrs. Wipf (Therese Affecter) — who claims equality between the sexes is “a sin against nature” — and forming a makeshift suffrage organization ahead of a 1971 ballot vote on the issue. From the start, she’s joined in her campaign by elderly firebrand Vroni (Sibylle Brunner), who resents losing her restaurant because she wasn’t allowed to handle its finances, and Graziella (Marta Zoffoli), a single Italian woman whose curly hair and fashionable threads are signs of her enlightened attitude.
Sick of the status quo, Nora, Vroni and Nora’s sister Theresa (Rachel Braunschweig) — the latter incapable of sitting idly by while her husband condemns daughter Hanna to the Big House — soon visit Zurich. There, in the film’s funniest sequence, they attend a session with a hippie-dippy guru who teaches them to “love your vagina” by passing around mirrors and having them stare into their crotches (which, they’re informed, come in many varieties, including “butterfly,” “bunny” and, for Nora, “tiger”). More than just a jokey scenario, however, the scene — and its revelations that 45-year-old Theresa has never peeked at her womanhood, and that Nora has never had an orgasm — is a sharp depiction of female liberation as a process that’s not only external but, just as important, internal: one that requires the knowledge, and embrace, of one’s own unique value.
“The Divine Order” eventually sees the town’s ladies go on strike ahead of the vote, shacking up together in an act of solidarity that further underscores women’s inherent power as the glue that holds families together. Volpe dramatizes her action with a light touch that allows for flashes of pointed comedy — a comical sex-magazine subplot shows the women as the keepers of everyone’s secrets — even as she maintains a firm focus on the way threats of slander, humiliation, abuse and ostracism are used by the ruling class to maintain privilege.
No prior knowledge of Switzerland’s political evolution is necessary to guess the conclusion of “The Divine Order,” as its feel-good narrative telegraphs much of what’s to come. Yet thanks to its director’s sturdy guidance and Leuenberger’s fine lead performance as Nora, whose resolve is colored by doubt and trepidation, the film never feels stilted or preachy; rather, it radiates an infectious admiration for the courage shown by its heroines in the face of immense obstacles.