You can tell instantly that you're in for an uplifting, episodic tale of the triumph unconditional love exerts over despair and hardship. It is one of the annoying conventions of family-based sagas that their makers assume we can only enjoy them when told in flashback, as if to remind us that the tone should always be hopeful despite the occasional forays into misery.
It would be wrong to dismiss any movie for the single reason that it chooses to begin its narrative with the end of its story, and Antonia's Line is an excellent example. Like last year's My Family, it radiates with the warmth and feeling of people who have decided to seize life and live it fully. You're meant to take great comfort in knowing that some people not only survive but actually thrive. While that sentiment may be a bit banal, the film tackles it with such passion and humor that you get swept along by the energy in its woozy reverie.
"Antonia's Line" is an awkward, confusing title, but it simply refers to the five generations of women in Antonia's family, who collectively are the true stars of the show. Beginning with her shrill, dotty mother and continuing through her innocent great-granddaughter Sarah, the story follows the trajectory of Antonia's family in the post-war years, mirroring the development of the Dutch people.
After the war, Antonia returned to town with her 16-year-old daughter, Danielle (Els Dottermans), to see her mother, Allegonda, who lay dying. Although Antonia left the village in disgust prior to the war, swearing it to be too provincial in which to raise a child, her sentiment--and the property she inherits--convinces her to stay.
Allegonda's death-bed scene contrasts nicely with Antonia's, which opens the film; they take place in the same bed decades apart, and in that time you can see how different the lives (and regrets) of these dying women have been. Allegonda rants bitterly about her husband's numerous infidelities, and seems oblivious to her daughter's presence at her side. You sense that the rest of Antonia's life, already half over, gets reshaped by the experience. She subconsciously dedicates herself to living a life without regrets; she glimpsed at her own future that day, and resolved to lead a life vastly better than what she had witnessed.
This is just one of the inventive juxtapositions and surreal moments in this loving memoir by writer-director Marleen Gorris. Gorris sews up the movie's dreamlike imagery inside a cloth of homey sensibilities and sober feminist thought on her way to creating that most unassailable of social documents: a political sampler that cautiously steers clear of overt proselytizing. Gorris knows how to make her points with subtlety, and Antonia's Line benefits from her temperate and tender portrait of personal independence grounded in a love of family.
Gorris conjures up a panoply of characters, mostly female, to carry home her message of hope and feminine autonomy. In addition to the fully developed and individual members of Antonia's family, the film teems with interesting characters, some painted with brief but sharp brush strokes: the tutor who enters into a loving lesbian relationship with Danielle; the retarded girl, sexually abused by her boorish brother, who finds love with the village simpleton; the Catholic woman who howls at the moon every night because her religion prevents her from marrying the town Protestant.
The men in this movie don't get as well-rounded a treatment. They tend toward being either dangerous, clueless, or of limited use. When Danielle decides she wants a child without a husband, she and Antonia go shopping for a sperm donor--who is unaware that he has been recruited for that purpose. Once Danielle's night of passion ends, she runs off, content that she will have a child. (She does.)
Some may feel Antonia's Line is as cavalierly sexist as Thelma and Louise (which itself is anti-male only to the extent that none of the men, though depicted accurately, are believable characters). Antonia's Line does bear some similarity: It calls upon its women to define themselves in terms of each other rather than in terms of the men in their lives--a daring and rare point of view in a movie, and one all the more gratifying when it's portrayed as successfully as this.
Antonia's Line. First Look Pictures. Willeke van Ammelrooy, Els Dottermans. Written and directed by Marleen Gorris. Now showing.