A family-redefining epic from the Netherlands, Antonia’s Line (1995) is about no-nonsense matriarch Antonia (Willeke van Ammelrooy) whose farm, in the decades following WWII, serves as a haven for the bullied, the kindhearted, the self-determined, and the unconventional. Janet Maslin’s New York Times review, in a play on the term magical realism, called Antonia’s Line a work of “magical feminism”. It counts as the first feature-length film directed by a woman to win an Academy Award.
That Antonia’s Line won for Best Foreign Language Film may be why it, and its writer-director Marleen Gorris, went unacknowledged in the many articles about women directors that were published in the wake of 2016’s diversity-bereft Academy Awards (six years having passed since the Academy nominated a woman for Best Director). Given the wider “war on women”, and an intensified “rape culture”, Antonia’s Line is as relevant as ever.
Marleen Gorris’s debut film A Question of Silence (1982) is also considered a feminist classic. Though shocking and urban-grim, it anticipates the bucolic Antonia’s Line in a key way. The film tells the story of three women, a mother, a waitress, and a secretary, all of whom feel profoundly marginalized by male-dominated society. Initially strangers in a dress boutique, they band together when the proprietor catches one of them shoplifting. They attack him, wordlessly, crushing his skull and mutilating his genitalia, witnessed by other women in the boutique who seem complicit in their silence.
The mother in A Question of Silence refuses to speak after her arrest, even to the female psychiatrist evaluating her sanity. Instead, she draws a series of crude pictures through which she envisions, according to Asimina Ino Nikolopoulou’s thorough analysis of the film, “a community of women living together in peace, forming household clusters of their own, thus discarding societal limitations that keep them trapped in patriarchal constructs.”
However academic the jargon, this describes what happens 13 years later on the farm in Antonia’s Line, with two overlapping qualifiers: the cluster is not exclusively women so much as pro-women and, as decades pass, the cluster is also cross-generational, a line from Antonia’s mother down to Antonia’s lesbian artist daughter Danielle (Els Dottermans), an astute, math-prone granddaughter born out of wedlock, and an investigative great-granddaughter who enjoys writing and who, as an adult, narrates the film.
Antonia’s Line opens on (and in the end comes back to) the last day of Antonia’s long life. Her bedroom is a faded, nicked red, with the stylized minimalism of a fable, and she wakes to unseen birds chirping outside her window. She knows she is going to die. The narrator tells us that, unlike most people, Antonia knows when enough is enough. The determination she displays seems less to die, however, than to die on her own terms: as she’s lived.
With this, the film flashes back to Antonia returning to the farm after many years away and attending her own mother’s deathbed, a zany, irreverent scene that unhinges the established solemnity. At the funeral, adolescent Danielle imagines her grandmother sitting up in her coffin and singing “My Blue Heaven”, gazing up at a large crucifix with its Jesus animating to return her gaze. As these two registers, solemn and irreverently fantastical, alternate with pastoral symbolism and toxic forms of village patriarchy, Gorris’s film displays a full breadth of personality.
The postwar village takes on a distinct personality of its own as well, by virtue of the numerous well-drawn villagers. Part of the joy of Antonia’s Line is how adeptly Gorris populates her plot with interrelated characters whose names and quirks make them instantly iconic. Popular films from the era that are similar in this manner range from Sweden’s My Life as a Dog to Italy’s Cinema Paradiso and Canada’s Anne of Green Gables. None of these films, however, unleash a dark side like Antonia’s Line.
Serving as a counterpoint to Antonia’s embrace of life is her dear but chronically depressed childhood friend, now shut-in, nicknamed Crooked Finger (Mil Seghers). A much more ominous extreme, though, is the counterpoint between her near-utopian farm and a nearby farm where, as the narrator tells us, “the men’s loud voices rode roughshod over the women’s silence” (harkening back to the theme of Gorris’s A Question of Silence). The farm patriarch’s older son rapes not only his own sister, who takes refuge at Antonia’s farm, but years later Danielle’s daughter.
In any other movie, Antonia’s powerful revenge scene would constitute the climactic turning point. Antonia’s Line is novel-like in its chaptered structure but also epic, with story ahead: crops to harvest, art to create, love to make, babies to be born, community members to mourn. This undermines the rape’s symbolic power over their lives and in the plot.
“Life wants to live,” says farmer Antonia; it could be her motto.
Following Antonia’s Line, Gorris continued to live up to her feminist auteur reputation with the sublime Mrs. Dalloway (1997), starring Vanessa Redgrave, and two Emily Watson vehicles: The Luzhin Defence (2000) and Within the Whirlwind (2009).
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The Antonia’s Line DVD includes one special feature, an interesting if not substantive interview with Marleen Gorris, from 1995, in which she addresses editing and score.