OTI Online
Summer 1996

Antonia, Anne . . . and Oscar
FILM REVIEWS by Kathy Maio

It's a sick cultural ritual, the Oscars. But like a great many Americans, I'm glued to the TV during the Academy Awards. Most years, with women's roles as bad as they are, there's nothing much to root for. But this last Oscar night was more exciting than usual for me. This time out, I was actually crossing my fingers in a few categories, and my most fervent boosterism was reserved for two movies most Americans hadn't seen. Both commemorate the lives of strong-willed women. Neither was made in Hollywood.

When Antonia's Line, the Netherlands's official entry, was nominated for best foreign-language film, I was shocked and thrilled. And when it won, mirabile dictu! -- didn't those folks know what they were doing? They bestowed an Oscar upon an overtly feminist film!

Many people will probably watch Antonia's Line, screenwriter-director Marleen Gorris's fourth film, and have no idea how very political it is. A family saga about five generations of villagers in the south of Holland, it can seem as wholesome and homey as the big old farmhouse that is its central locale. But appearances can be deceiving, for this is a film about a modern matriarchy. It chronicles a glorious clan of women who refuse to be controlled by patriarchal custom or male violence.

Foremost among them is Antonia (played by the magnificent Willeke van Ammelrooy), who returns to her native village at the close of World War II to bury her still-venomous, dying mother and take over the family farm. With the help of her teenage daughter, Danielle (Els Dottermans), she harvests more than crops. A "prodigal daughter," Antonia gathers to her table a community of rebels, outcasts, and life's walking-wounded -- all the "others" in her one-tavern town. She makes a new life -- and lives it, honorably, by her own rules.

But Antonia's rules don't always jibe with those of other villagers. Everyone assumed, for example, that a widow would want a new husband. Farmer Bas (Jan Decleir), himself a widower, is especially hopeful on this score. He proposes a practical merger of local farm families. His five sons, he tells her, need a mother. "Yes," Antonia agrees, "but I don't need your sons." Neither does she need a husband, she informs him. What she can use is a good neighbor and friend. In one of the film's acknowledgements that there are good men in this world, Bas accepts a relationship with this calm, broad-shouldered amazon on her terms.

There are abusive and controlling men, too, in this hamlet. Antonia and Danielle must do battle with rapist thugs and hypocritical priests, but their weapons of choice are wits and will. Violence is a male game -- one Antonia's male compatriots, luckily, don't mind playing, when necessary. The women resort to it only in a crisis -- and then never in a cold-blooded manner.

Since this is a feminist fable, the victor in these clashes with misogyny is never really in doubt. Nor is there ever any question of Antonia's unconditional love for and support of Danielle and the other women in her extended family.

When Danielle decides she wants a baby but not a husband, her mother helps her get what she wants. (Of course, she has a daughter.) And when Danielle later decides that she loves her young daughter's grade-school teacher, Antonia makes room at the family hearth for Danielle's lesbian partner, Lara (Elsie de Brauw).

Antonia's world is one of acceptance -- of differences and choices. Except, by implication, when it come to reproduction. Although Antonia's Line comes mighty close to being the perfect feminist feature film, the women in it seem obliged to bear offspring. One character, Letta (Wimie Wilhelm) is so enamored of pregnancy and childbirth that she pops out a new infant annually -- until unlucky number 13 kills her.

So, OK, some women want to have babies -- lots of them. But not all of us want to be parents, and Antonia's Line presents just such a woman. Danielle's daughter, Therese (played as an adult by Veerle Van Overloop), is an emotionally withdrawn intellectual and a genius at mathematics and music. When she accidentally becomes pregnant (circa the late '70s), she becomes a mom, even though she has absolutely no interest in playing nurturer. Her attitude toward her child -- a daughter, of course -- borders on benign neglect.

It's a disappointing mystery why Marleen Gorris forced the character of Therese into motherhood. In her own life, Gorris made a conscious decision not to have children. She has told interviewers that her own attitude is similar to that of the film's reclusive philosopher, Crooked Finger (Mil Seghers), who advises Therese, his beloved protegee, to abort, to save her child from the misery of a "rotten world."

Antonia's Line is framed as a matrilineal saga, in which daughter passes on to daughter a wealth of womanly pride, and the "line" goes well past the limits of blood relationships, beyond formal marriage and direct progeny. Antonia's whole family is a chosen one. Yet clearly Therese is a woman who does not want to parent a child, so why does she give birth? And why did this feminist film have to maintain its maternal imperative even unto a generation that has had access to safe, state-funded abortion?

Only Marleen Gorris can answer that. But given the chance, I don't think I'd grill her too severely on the point. I'd be too busy thanking her for the most energizing, uplifting, woman-positive film I've ever seen.

Anne Frank Remembered, winner in the best documentary feature category, recalls the author of Diary of a Young Girl, a document of youthful intensity and hope. Generations of young girls, worldwide, have identified with Anne's impassioned, sometimes petulant diary musings and wept for her loss.

During the opening sequences, shots of train wheels and ovens and modern synagogues, set to the strains of violins, seemed too obvious. And the oh-so-polite narration of Kenneth Branagh left me cold. (Even Glenn Close's brief readings from the Diary seemed artificially sweet.) I feared that director Jon Blair would never get past Anne the icon: virgin martyr, victim-saint, poster child of the Holocaust.

But soon Blair abandons the pious approach and delves more deeply into the personality of the young woman we know from the diary (now available in a new edition that restores several bowdlerized passages about her changing body, sexuality, and mother-angst). This Anne is an energetic, opinionated soul, eager to embrace life and make her mark on the world. A childhood chum in Amsterdam, Hanneli Goslar, recalls her own mother's characterization of Anne with the tart observation that "God knows everything, but Anne knows everything better."

Blair searches out people who actually knew Anne, and he gives them the opportunity to share their remembrances of her. Through these witnesses, most of them women, we relive Anne's brief life and the heartbreak of her death from typhus, starvation, and exposure in a hellhole called Bergen-Belsen in the late winter of 1945.

Anne is a hero who died. But Anne Frank Remembered also tells us about women heroes who survived -- each deserving of her own biographical documentary. There is Hanneli Goslar, who was also sent to Bergen-Belsen. Here, too, is Dutch resistance fighter Janny Brandes-Brille-slijper, another camp survivor. She had the sad duty of informing Anne's father, Otto Frank (sole survivor of the attic) that both his daughters were dead.

And then there is Miep Gies.

Mrs. Gies, a Vienna-born Christian, was one of the handful of Dutch citizens who supplied the inmates of the secret annex with food, sundries, and news during their two years of hiding. It is she who, in defiance of Nazi orders, re-entered the attic and gathered up the scattered remnants of Anne's diary after the Franks were captured. Miep preserved those pages, and the privacy of her young friend, through the war's final days. She hoped to return the diary to its author. Instead she could only present them, unread, to a grieving father. And so to posterity.

The memory of Anne Frank haunts us 50 years after her death. But it is the simple humanity (and unassuming bravery) of Miep Gies that makes Anne Frank Remembered a truly unforgettable experience.

Watching Antonia's Line, and listening to Miep Gies's recollections in Anne Frank Remembered, you almost wonder what they put in the water over in Holland that produces women this unpretentiously heroic. And then you realize that women are no different in the Netherlands -- it's the film portrayals of us that vary so widely.

Hollywood just doesn't get us. But this year, at least they were willing to honor two films that did.

KATHY MAIO is film editor of Soujourner: The Women's Forum and author of Feminist in the Dark and Popcorn and Sexual Politics.

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