Anyone who saw Marleen Gorris's militant fantasy A Question of Silence in the mid-1980s immediately understood the Dutch filmmaker's no-holds-barred feminism. In a clever twist on Death Wish and four decades of male-dominated revenge Westerns, Gorris had three ordinary women--a housewife, a waitress and a secretary--heap their pent-up resentment and frustration on a piggish dress shop owner who accuses one of them of shoplifting. Fuses lit, they wreck the place, kill the oppressor and at the ensuing murder trial take glee in their sudden empowerment--as did the filmmaker when Silence became a worldwide advertisement for radical Eurofeminism, if not for general revolt by just about everybody in shackles.
Marleen Gorris hasn't exactly mellowed with the years. But Antonia's Line, which is up for an Academy Award as best foreign-language film, reveals a political artist whose ideas have ripened and deepened. She's still shouting from the stump, but there's now almost as much wit and generosity in the sermon as there is sheer fire. The new Gorris film is as entertaining as it is impassioned.
The eponymous heroine of the piece is a hearty, self-sufficient earth mother, played by the celebrated Dutch actress Willeke van Ammelrooy, who passes her unflagging spirit on through three generations of children and single-handedly liberates the tiny village to which she's returned after World War II from centuries of backwardness, superstition and tyranny. Antonia is a powerful force of nature, and anyone in her path is either swept along or gets knocked out of the way--including a hypocritical parish priest, a widowed farmer (Jan Decleir) who clumsily proposes marriage, the cartoonish town rapist and the village idiot. Inevitably, Antonia comes off more as a bundle of virtues than as an actual character, and if that dilutes some of the film's intended effect, it is also the privilege of the polemicist to draw pictures in black and white.
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In any event, Gorris herself calls Antonia's Line a "fairy tale," and she decorates it with unexpected little miracles--like the coming of a genius granddaughter named Therese (Veerle Van Overloop) and the blooming of love between a teacher and student. The film is also suffused with magical realism, a metier not usually associated with the Dutch. The heroine's bright, vivid daughter, Danielle (Els Dottermans), imagines her fierce grandmother rising from her coffin to blare out a rendition of "My Blue Heaven"; a graveyard statue administers a swift kick to a phony priest; a neighbor called Mad Madonna bays at the moon for love lost to religious intolerance; and a tortured intellectual named Crooked Finger (Mil Seghers) barricades himself in his study with Plato, Schopenhauer and a series of uncommonly brilliant girl students because of all the trouble he's seen.
Meanwhile, Antonia presides in majesty for half a century over the flowering of a huge extended family, the growth of creative spirit in the assorted artists and musicians she spawns, and the varieties of love that burst forth around her--straight and lesbian, intellectual and low-IQ, long- and short-term. When Danielle decides she wants a child but not a husband, mother and daughter take off for the city to rent a hotel suite and recruit a sperm donor. When the village rapist takes advantage of his retarded sister, plucky Danielle takes him out with a pitchfork. Over the years, outdoor banquet tables are shared, acts of justice are meted out and life goes on in all its colorations. By mid-film, Gorris's metaphorical implications are practically standing on their heads, frantically waving at us: The village is all of Europe evolving in the postwar era; Antonia is the womanly soul of liberation itself. Little matter that political artists like Gorris have no time for irony: The idealized, life-giving heroine of her film brings a glow to everything she touches, but it's probably escaped the filmmaker's notice that Antonia's something of a dictator herself. So be it. Because she's not a woman in jeopardy but a woman in charge, it's usually her way or no way. By the time we behold her as a silvery (but still vital!) great-grandmother, she's taken on all the qualities of a secular saint--including a certain otherworldliness.
Happily, the robust van Ammelrooy, who has about her the air of Simone Signoret in her prime, never quite leaves the ground. Her directness of gaze, gesture and verbal expression bridges the gap between woman and goddess, and hers is one of the great film performances of recent times, even for those of us who don't know a word of Dutch. When she finally tells her farmer/suitor, "You may not have my hand, but you can take the rest of me," or when, at the end, she gathers her family around her and tells them, "Life wants to live," she's utterly convincing as flesh and blood and as force of will. That has been her destiny all along, and it's satisfying to get there with her.
Antonia's Line. Written and directed by Marleen Gorris. With Willeke van Ammelrooy, Els Dottermans, Jan Decleir and Veerle Van Overloop.