Antonia's Line B
Can women live happily without men This is the question posed by Dutch director Marleen Gorris in “Antonia's Line,” an idealized, almost fairy-tale like portrait of an independently minded woman. Antonia's Line has played the international festival circuit, winning many awards along the way. You can see why: Though empowering, this feminist saga is always humanistic and warmhearted, never committing the error of being too preachy or schematic, like some of Gorris' previous films, most notably “A Question of Silence.”
When the story begins, Antonia (wonderfully played by Willeke Van Ammelrooy) is an old lady of 88. By a kind of magic realism that characterizes the entire film, she realizes it's the last day of her life. Through a long flashback, we follow Antonia, a stocky matron of 40, as she and her 16-year-old daughter Danielle (Els Dottermans) return to the small farming town where Antonia was born. They have come to see Antonia's mother, who still rants about the infidelities of her long-dead husband.
As mother and daughter stride through town, all seems unchanged, exactly as Antonia remembers it when she left, at the outbreak of WWII. The only exception is a graffiti which reads, “Welkom to Our Liberators,” a tribute for the liberating American army. Antonia decides to settle in, assume her place in the village and take control of her farm.
Gorris, who wrote the screenplay in l988, narrates the lives of five generations of women who lead ordinary lives–they work, have kids, and bond with each other. Antonia creates a welcome table for all the eccentrics in town, people who don't–or won't–fit into the narrow mold prescribed by harsh traditions. What an odd collection they form. There's Olga (Fran Waller Zeper), a Russian who serves as the village midwife, cafe-owner, and undertaker at different times of the day. And there's Mad Madonna (Catherine Ten Bruggencate), who owls at the moon, because her strictly Catholic milieu won't let he marry her great love, the Protestant who lives downstairs.
Don't get me wrong; there are men in the story, like the village priest, whose weekly sermons are always the same, or Bas, a widower who after 20 years is still called “the Newcomer.” But men play secondary roles; they're in the periphery. Antonia shows her mettle early on, when she none too gracefully turns down a farmer's proposal. “My five sons need a mother,” he says. “But I don't need your sons!” she replies with a big smile.
Men are not ignored exactly, but they are given their due treatment. When daughter Danielle decides to have a child, she refuses to be bothered by the “complications” of having a husband. Without a blink, the enlightened Antonia ushers her to the city, where they enlist the help of Letta, who runs a shelter for unmarried pregnant women. Letta just happens to have a stud for a brother. The handsome guy squires Danielle on his motorcycle to a chateau-turned-hotel, they check in and, in a hand standing romp, give life to Therese (Veerle Van Overloop).
We follow Therese as she grows up to be a serious scholar, a math professor and gifted composer. In the meantime, a love affair evolves between Danielle and Therese's tutor, Lara (Elsie De Brauw), who comes to live at the farm. Their lesbian relationship is portrayed with delicacy and honesty; there's a prolonged sex scene, which is far more realistic than the one we recently saw in Patricia Rosema's erotic fantasy, When Night Is Falling.
Despite a rich, multi-layered narrative, the core of the drama is in how erring men are–and should be-treated by women. When a brute rapes Therese, Antonia hunts him down and lays a life-course on his head at a gunpoint. She decides to spare him only on the condition that he immediately leave town. And when the hypocritical priest preaches against fornication, Antonia again takes matters in hand and catches him in flagrante delicto with a young girl in the confessional!
After living a full life, surrounded by all of her descendants, Antonia finally lets go. But as the narrator observes, “As this long chronicle draws to its finish, nothing has come to an end.” Gorris directs the film as a universal family chronicle, taking a life cycle approach and detailing along the way birth, death, love, and hatred–above all the flowering of each new generation.
Gorris' fourth film is more accomplished and mature than her previous work, especially the highly controversial, “A Question of Silence,” which was no more than an academic treatise. her new film is an imaginary creation of a peaceful life in which intelligent women occupy the center. Truly self-reliant, none of the women is defined by the traditional roles of wife, mother, or daughter. “Welkom to Our Liberators,” the sign observed by Antonia upon arrival, assumes a personal meaning for each of the women at the end of the saga.
The film's lush photography presents the idyllic Dutch country as a paradise, a magical kingdom where all women are caring and understanding. A hymn to female strength and its power to overcome rigid, male-defined conventions, “Antonia's Line” should be embraced by viewers who believe in change.
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