For our film group this month I chose Antonia’s Line (1995). Why did I pick this film from my collection? Three reasons spring to mind. In a new book about ageing: Lynn Segal’s ‘Out of Time, the Pleasures and Perils of Age’, there is no mention of the experience of old women as grandmothers and nowadays great-grandmothers. Then in an exchange with friends over photos of old women there was the feeling that representing women as mothers, grandmothers is cliché and boring. And finally I became a great-grandmother this year and another sort of identity emerged in me. I am not anymore the older woman but a link in a chain and the consciousness of being important to the chain between the past and the future but also a feeling of anonymity. No more duties and influence – just a loving link. But I must come back to Antonia’s Line. When I first saw it in 1996 I had just retired at the age of 60 and having been part of the feminist movement I loved the Marleen Gorris film. On seeing the film again this week it made me smile. I thought this is a wonderful feminist manifesto.
Antonia’s Line begins with the arrival in a village – after the war – of Antonia and her daughter. Her mother is dying. As Antonia shows her daughter the village where she was born, we see on a wall displaying American flags : Welcome to the Liberators. The mother’s death is treated in a comical style. The angry, ugly woman, is cursing her husband for his sexual infidelities behind the church and in her last breath, sitting up accuses Antonia of being late – as usual like her father – and then literally dropping back dead. The room is full of candles and only the priest is there to shut her eyes. The film ends with Antonia’s peaceful death surrounded by family and friends.
Antonia’s life course from her 40s to her death is displayed in this rural background. A voice over comments on time passing and fill in the gaps in the life of the village and Antonia’s family. Many reviewers of the film describe it as a fable and it is in this mode that I will first consider the general themes of the film and then the way Gorris embodies in her female characters the diversity of women’s lives. To identify the characters I will use their roles and relationships rather than their names.
NATURE AND PEOPLE: Nature and farming sequences are edited into the human narrative throughout the film. Even the full moon – often seen as a woman symbol – has a role. Thus human life is firmly placed in the cycles of nature. Many long shots of a long table in the garden at which more and more people share meals and fun express conviviality.
LIFE AND DEATH: As the film covers a whole lifetime, there is throughout, a celebration of life without ignoring deaths and we know in detail how some characters leave this life.
PUBLIC RESISTANCE TO SEXISM: There are two public spaces in the village: the cafe and the church. It is in the cafe that a farmer and his son display rude and sexist verbal aggression and even demean their own disabled daughter and sister. It is here that Antonia stands up to this behaviour. It is here that she deals with the rapist. Similarly although Antonia is not religious, she attends the church but also makes a point of protesting against the priest’s attack on single mothers. In both instances this permits the Good Farmer to express his support for women. He comforts the disabled woman in the cafe and in the church walks out followed by a train of 5 sons during the priest’s sermon against single mothers, in support of Antonia’s pregnant daughter. Another public space where Antonia’s granddaughter makes a stand is at school/University when she protests about the rigid teaching of a male teacher/ lecturer and is followed by fellow students who leave the lecture.
VIOLENCE: violence against women but also by men on men is a theme that is dealt with in different ways. The consciousness of the recent war is seen in the opening sequence as above but also by its effect on the Pessimist Philosopher whose best friend has been shot for harbouring a Jewish family. He eventually commits suicide. A little boy throws stones at a disabled man. The scene where the Bad Farmer’s son rapes his own mentally disabled sister is treated in a realistic style. When he reappears in a soldier’s uniform to claim his inheritance after 13 years of absence he rapes Antonia’s granddaughter. Angry Antonia although threatening him with a gun just piles on him blood-curdling curses. A group of village men beat and kick him and finally his own brother kills him.
THE CHURCH: seen here as a repressive institution with a hypocritical priest who is blackmailed by Antonia and the Good Farmer into changing his sermon into one of tolerance and love. (They see him one night sneaking out of the church to have sex). Mad Mary bays at the full moon. Her neighbour desires her but they cannot get together because she is Catholic and he Protestant. The curate cannot tolerate the glorification of death and frees himself from the church dancing “I am free!” .
DISABILITY AND NEED: The disabled man and the farmer’s daughter with mental disabilities are welcomed and integrated in Antonia’s household and marry in a traditional way. The single mother with 12 children with nowhere to live is also welcomed into the fold. She gets together with the curate who leaves the church and joins the community of women.
THE COMFORTING TOUCH: throughout the film, in times of tragedy or sadness Antonia’s people hug each other. Mother comforts daughter, daughter comforts mother, granddaughter comforts grandmother, lover comforts lover, teacher comforts child, friend comforts friend.
LOVE, SEX and RIGHT TO CHOOSE : there is funny montage of different couples having sex in different ways: Young couple, middle age couple, old couple, lesbian couple. The two with mental difficulties also have a right to sexual life. Sex is the result of a relationship. The choice of having a baby or not is talked about openly by the whole community.
Like the men who are types rather that characters – the good widowed farmer with five sons, the bad farmer father of the rapist, the depressed philosopher – the women stand for types rather than psychological characters. These challenge sexist stereotypes. Mad Maria is the exception as she is the victim, the other women are full of life and talents.
The community social glue: as cafe owner, midwife, and undertaker. Antonia’s friend she will lay out her body.
Teachers: the nun and the daughter’s lover recognise the exceptional gifts of the granddaughter and suggest extra coaching at home.
The mother of 12 children. Declares that being pregnant and giving birth is still more enjoyable than sex.
The great-grandchild: ( around 5-7 ?) whose voice is the voice-over that comments on the community. She is interested in the mystery of death and writes little stories. She is the one Antonia talks to about death.
The grandchild: As a child she is gifted in Maths, Philosophy and Music. An achiever, she becomes lecturer and also composer. Has difficulty with social contacts and maternal feelings. Does not choose as a partner her intellectual equal but a childhood friend.
The daughter: An artist. Paints and sculpts. Her vivid imagination gives rise to some surreal shots of her visions. Decides to become mother but does not want a man. Falls in love with her daughter’s female teacher. Prone to strong emotions.
Antonia ‘the liberator’ : her arrival in the rural community transforms it. She uses curses rather than violence to deal with the rapist. She decides to have a sexual relationship with the good farmer when she is ready and not when he asks her to marry him to fulfil his needs. She welcomes people in need into her household. She farms and looks after family and friends. She is strong and loving. There are no tensions between her, her daughter, or granddaughter. She suffers their pain and gives them comfort. The link between her and great-grandchild is very special as they can talk about her death in a very matter-of-fact way.
Feminist views and ideals underlie every scene of this film. It is less extreme that Gorris’s 1982 A Question of Silence. For it to be awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1996 and other nominations and awards, is quite an achievement. As a 61 years old woman, I loved the film for its articulation of women’s voices. As a 79 years old woman I am touched by its view of a feminist utopia. Over these last 18 years there has been little change in many areas. War and violence against men, women and children is still rife. The fight for the right of a pregnancy or not is still going on. The oppression of women by religious dogma is still being fought against. I feel there are additional stresses in our lives. Nature has become a source of anxiety. The gains in sexual expression by women is accompanied by a proliferation of pornography. The gains of women in the public sphere are balanced by a fragmentation of family ties and the lack of appreciation of the roles of grandmother and the extended family.
For responses of the film group please see under film group.