See what happens when one woman upends the social order of a small Dutch village.
I have recommended the film Antonia’s Line frequently. It is easily my favorite and the one that opens the most doors into what is possible. Beware there are many spoilers here.
Antonia (played by Willeke van Ammelrooy) brings her daughter to her to the village she grew up in, initially to say good-bye to her dying mother who spews out religious dogma and nonsense on her deathbed, but with the backdrop of World War II having just finished. With the former matriarch safely tucked away in the graveyard, Antonia’s brand of independence and revolutionary openness swiftly breaks down centuries old roles and expectations.
1. Antonia attracts a widower with five sons. In short order, he proposes marriage to her because his sons need a mother. “But I don’t need your sons,” she replies. “You don’t?” he asks her, stunned. She sets the terms that she will offer meals, milk, and vegetables for things she can’t do herself. “But I already have those things.” A relationship comes about later, but it is not one that leaves her in a position to be chattel.
2. Antonia’s daughter wants to have a baby, but has no compulsion to marry or maintain a relationship. Antonia spells out the hardships to her, finally insisting that the one condition is that the father of the child must not be one of the villagers. She takes her to the nearest city to a center for fallen women. A plucky, enthusiastic woman who loves being pregnant helps Danielle conceive with a relative of hers. Initially, the religious order of the town shame Antonia and Danielle out of the church, but a combination of blackmail and exposing clerical predilections get the family in good graces with the church again.
3. A rapist from a wealthy landowning family casts a pall over the village in a couple of different instances over a long period of time. This is the only crime that is reciprocated with violence in Antonia’s culture because it is the ultimate expression of domination. Mob rule and promises of eternal curses give those around him the courage to serve out justice.
4. One of the victims of the rapist is his mentally handicapped sister Deedee. She and a man with a similar state of mind find each other as they gravitate toward and eventually work for Antonia’s farm. They conceive a child, marry, and do not face harassment or threats to be sterilized by the community, because their value and attributes are recognized and cherished.
5. Danielle’s daughter Therese is a child prodigy who seems to have infinite intelligence at the expense of expected feminine behavior. She becomes attached to the village hermit (Crooked Finger) who is a devout nihilist, explaining to her how nothing exists. She forms a strong psychic bond to him and no one interferes in the process of knowledge transfer the bizarre bachelor imparts to Therese.
6. Feminism is varied and misunderstood, but in the case of this story seems to entail accommodating all types of people and finding the cadence of life cycles and emotions. When the nihilist’s life ends, the whole of the village senses it and comes running in their collective concern.
7. The plucky woman from the city comes to Antonia’s home with her two children, presumably with resources or other forms of luck having run out. She and the children are downcast until Antonia welcomes them to the outdoor dinner table where her growing community are seated. The village priest who has recently left the post simply because his zeal for life is too great is in thrall with this woman in her pregnant state and they go on to happily have a dozen more children together.
8. When the woman dies in childbirth later on, her husband and the progeny leave to devote their lives to social work in the city.
9. Therese experiments sexually with the intellectuals at university and finds them highly egocentric and boring, so she returns to a childhood friend who is not her intellectual equal. She becomes pregnant, and the dozens children and other affiliates of Antonia’s circle have open debate as to whether she should or should not have the child. To the great offense of the nihilist, she has the baby, in part because she knows how much it means to her lover who accepts her totally. He is the primary caregiver for their daughter, giving Therese clearance to be intellectually productive.
10. Sarah, the daughter of Therese, is a contemplative young writer who also giggles when she sees the colorful ghosts of those who have died in the village. She comforts the villagers of the generations that have been present from the beginning of Antonia and Danielle’s arrival by observing their gifts. She writes a poem about all the gifted women around her but featuring Deedee, the mentally handicapped acquired family member, which provokes Deedee to speak the first and only time in the film.
11. Finally, Antonia foresees her own death and informs Sarah that it is coming, as she had promised she would do. She is not the victim of an illness or accident, but in a nurturing environment where one is not preoccupied with competition, conforming to others’ expectations, and not anticipating violence, oftentimes the rhythms of life can be detected in this manner. She, like others in her created community before her who do not die of accidents, is surrounded by family who will be hurt by her passing, but all of whom gain something different and positive from the experience.
In Antonia’s circle, someone can choose to never have children, they can choose to have a child every year if they want, they can devote their life to philosophy, and generally be left to do what they do best without interference… leading to actual maximum productivity. In an environment not driven by exploitation and warfare, life springs from all encounters.
Roger Ebert’s review: www.rogerebert.com/reviews/antonias-line-1996