When Dutch director Marleen Gorris in her beguiling fable “Antonia’s Line” introduces us to her indomitable heroine, she’s decided it’s the last day of her life. “It’s not that she was unwell but that she knew when enough was enough,” explains the film’s narrator, off-screen, who is in fact Antonia’s granddaughter, whose own little daughter is eager to witness the mystery of death at close hand.
Resting comfortably in her bed, Antonia (Willeke van Ammelrooy) flashes back on her long life, a familiar device that is just about Gorris’ only bow to convention in what is a joyous, good-humored celebration of forthright female self-determination and staunch sisterhood. As Antonia recalls the second half of her life, beginning with the end of World War II when she looks to be approaching 40, we very swiftly believe that she is a woman of such strength and will she really could dictate her demise a half-century later.
After an absence of some 20 years, Antonia returns to her rural hometown, an ancient farming community with spacious old buildings of austere beauty, for the approaching death of her crazed old mother. She has in tow her dreamy 16-year-old daughter Danielle (Els Dottermans), an aspiring artist who imagines, among other things, her grandmother sitting up in her casket to break out in a robust rendition of “My Blue Heaven” during her funeral. Antonia is a handsome, sturdy apple-cheeked woman of formidable self-reliance who decides to stay and run the family farm.
As the title suggests, the film is a dynastic tale, a story of several generations of women and their friends bound by love and respect. What gives it such texture is that it takes place in an earthy, blunt-speaking community in which the exuberantly liberated Antonia fits in just fine with various local eccentrics, irritating only the dour local Catholic priest, who proves no match for her anyway.
Antonia takes absolutely everything in stride: When an older Danielle, a lesbian, wants a child, her mother matter-of-factly takes her to the city to help her line up a suitable sperm donor.
When Danielle’s daughter proves to be a genius, Antonia’s reclusive, intellectual lifelong friend (Mil Seghers) makes tutoring her the center of his life. When Antonia decides she wants some romance, she strikes up an arrangement with a widowed farmer (Jan Decleir). When someone has a problem--or justice needs to be served--Antonia inevitably comes through with dispatch.
“The women in the film are thoroughly themselves and not defined through their roles as wife, mother or daughter,” Gorris has said. “Of course the film is a fairy tale.”
Yet Gorris seems to be saying that if women have firm self-confidence and common sense they can prevail, even with ease, yet the absence of conventional conflict never makes for a dull picture. That’s because Gorris expresses, through Antonia, an archetypal earth mother, a strong faith in the workings of nature--in its eternal cycles of life and death and the changing seasons.
Although an occasion for sadness and a sense of loss, death is inevitable and natural, but in the meanwhile, Antonia says, “life is to be lived.” Beautiful, tender, hearty and poetic, “Antonia’s Line,” which is the Netherlands’ official Oscar entry, is quirky, hilarious yet quite affecting in its elegiac moods. The astringent yet warm Van Ammelrooy rightly dominates as Antonia, but the large cast forms a distinctive ensemble. To label “Antonia’s Line” a feminist film seems somehow to diminish its wonderful embracing quality. Gorris--and Antonia--have this scarcely radical notion that women are men’s equals--and sometimes their superiors.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: The film has a candid scene of lovemaking, some violence and much blunt language.
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Willeke van Ammelrooy: Antonia
Els Dottermans: Danielle
Jan Decleir: Farmer Bas
Mils Seghers: Crooked Finger
A First Look Pictures presentation. Writer-director Marleen Gorris. Producer Hans de Weers. Co-producers Antonino Lombardo, Judy Counihan. Cinematographer Willy Stassen. Editors Michiel Reichwein and Wim Louwrier. Costumes Jany Temime. Music Ilona Sekacz. Art director Harry Ammerlaan. In Dutch, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
* At selected theaters in Los Angeles and Orange counties.