Feminist fairy tale is a lovely, meandering film
If I describe Antonia as a feminist family epic with touches of magic realism, please don’t let that put you off seeing it.
That’s just a neat way of summing up a sweeping story about five generations of women, one of whom occasionally imagines weird things, such as seeing her dead grandmother rising from her coffin and singing during her funeral.
Such surreal scenes are the least interesting thing about Antonia, a Dutch movie which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1996.
Far more fascinating are the web of female relationships explored, the beautiful depiction of the cycle of birth and death, and the idea of a life lived with men hovering around the periphery.
We first meet Antonia, played with a deft, light touch by Willeke van Ammelrooy, as she prepares for the last day of her life.
Although she doesn’t look it, the elderly lady is ready to die and plans to pass away with her much-loved great granddaughter by her side.
The film then rewinds back to the day Antonia, newly widowed after the Second World War, returns to her home village with her daughter Danielle.
The youngster is unimpressed with the rural setting and her mother admits she never liked it much herself.
Despite that, Antonia remains there for the rest of her days and this loosely plotted film follows her family’s fortunes as they till the land over many decades.
It’s apparent immediately that Antonia is no ordinary mother: almost everything she does is accompanied with a certain wryness, an inability to take things too seriously, and a definite disdain for convention.
She treats a local brutish farmer with casual contempt and stays loyal to her best friend in the village, an amateur philosopher and malcontent called Crooked Finger.
When another farmer, a widower, suggests they get married so she can be a mother to his clutch of young sons, she turns him down, explaining she doesn’t need to take on that role.
She remains friends with him and his boys, however, and they come to form part of an extended family which Antonia and Danielle cultivate, and which includes a vulnerable young woman raped by her own brother, a bullied youth named Loony Lips and others.
Danielle goes on to have her own daughter, a mathematical whiz, and that character continues the matriarchal line, eventually having a little girl too.
All find warmth, love and an ability to just be themselves as they gather around the huge table outside Antonia’s farmhouse.
Those scenes of al fresco dining depict an idyll which is absent elsewhere in the village, where incest, unrequited love and religious hypocrisy abound.
Director Marleen Gorris has described her film as a feminist fairy tale and it certainly contains fantastical elements, as well as an unashamedly independent woman as its protagonist.
But the real heart of this story, for me, was simply the notion that one should live freely and according to one’s own desires and beliefs, regardless of the social mores of the day.
Hardly an earth-shattering concept, but a very likeable one, and one that diffuses this lovely, meandering motion picture.
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