Antonia's Line
aka Antonia
Antonia's Line

Dutch Language. Netherlands/Belgium/UK, 1995. Rated R. 93 minutes.

Cast: Willeke van Ammelrooy, Els Dottermans, Veerle van Overloop, Thyrza Ravesteijn, Jan Decleir, Mil Seghers, Marina De Graaf, Jan Steen, Michael Pas, Leo Hogenboom, Wimie Whilhelm.
Writer: Marleen Gorris
Music: Ilona Sekacz
Cinematographer: Willy Stassen
Producers: Gerard Cornelisse, Hans De Weers, Hans de Wolf
Director: Marleen Gorris



Grade: D+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

Winner of an undeserved Academy Award™ for Best Foreign Language Film, Antonia's Line is an almost entirely unsuccessful North European stab at Latin American magical realism. Meant to be a celebration of life with a feminist slant, it's the sort of film whose idea of poetry is a woman baying at the full moon from her window every month... for forty years, while her unrequited lover downstairs gazes piningly at the ceiling... for forty years. She is a Catholic, and he is a Protestant, you see, so they cannot marry–even though they live in the 20th Century, and Holland is not precisely a backward country in the middle of nowhere.

That doesn't matter. Writer/director Marleen Gorris isn't telling a story about what life is really like for a particular group of people in a particular Dutch town; she is telling one of those tales about endearingly wacky European villagers who are more in touch with the joys of life and the rhythms of the earth than us civilized city-folk. Except in this case, Gorris has a clearly political agenda, as not a single positive male character populates the town. They're either rapists or big, dumb, lovable lugs.

As the title suggests, Antonia's Line centers around earth mother-figure Antonia (Willeke van Ammelrooy) and her offspring, all of whom seem capable of predicting, and controlling somewhat, the moment of their own death. The film opens when Antonia returns to her small Dutch village at the end of World War Two, with her sleepy-eyed daughter Danielle (Els Dotternmans) in tow. As they walk through the town, Antonia introduces Danielle and the audience to the cast of characters. What an ugly cast it is! There's oily-haired Crooked Finger (Mil Seghers), a bilious old misanthrope who never leaves his house, a censorious fish-eyed priest (Leo Hogenboom), a mentally disabled girl with incomparably bad teeth (Marina de Graaf), a slow-witted boy with huge ears that stick straight out of his head (Jan Steen), and many, many more.

In an episode reminiscent of the "Bring Out Your Dead" sketch from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Antonia and Danielle have returned for the funeral of Antonia's not-quite-dead-yet mother. It's a scene that's as suitable a barometer as any for determining whether you might like Antonia's Line. They arrive to find an ancient, hairless woman contorting her tongue, spraying saliva, and raving profanities at her long-dead adulterous husband. Then, in a moment of lucidity, she notices Antonia. "You're late," she snaps at Antonia, and drops dead.

Subsequently, at the funeral, quiet Danielle imagines that the old crone sits up in her open coffin and sings "My Blue Heaven," while a statue of Jesus smiles. This tells us that Danielle is Imaginative and, therefore, Artistic. Beyond that, there is no significance to the scene. It's the sort of thing that's inserted into a movie so that the studio's marketing department can use the word "whimsical" in their press releases.

Antonia and Danielle settle down in the village and the years pass. The women fend off self-serving marriage proposals, sharp-tongued gossips, and rapists. Danielle has a daughter (but no husband) with a gift for mathematics, Therese (Veerle van Overloop, Esther Vriessendorp, Carolien Spoor), and, in time, Therese has a daughter herself, Sarah (Thyrza Revesteijn). As the family grows, so does the extended family. Antonia takes in one stray after another, including the mentally disabled girl, Deedee, after she is sexually assaulted and Danielle throws a pitchfork through the attacker's legs. Everyone who comes within Antonia's sphere of influence discovers happiness and flourishes–just as those who cross her do not. Presumably, Gorris' point with all of this is that, unlike men, women are natural nurturers possessing strength and common sense. Taken further, she is arguing that matriarchy is a far healthier mode of social organization than what we currently have, which, despite the advances in women's rights, can admittedly still be classified as patriarchy. It may not be a completely outrageous argument to make, but it is facile and simplistic.

Not everything in Antonia's Line is a total loss. Van Ammelrooy, in particular, is an impressive, charismatic woman. She is the perfect choice for Antonia. The makeup also deserves special mention. The characters age beautifully and believably, in contrast to many larger-budgeted Hollywood movies. Finally, despite the lack of male role models, Gorris is careful not to be too strident with her message. These qualities make Antonia's Line watchable in parts, but the overall result is a tedious, plotless bore.

In 1987, Ettore Scola's touching, understated La Famiglia (The Family) did a far better job of sketching a trans-generational portrait of a family. In contrast, the characters in Antonia's Line are crudely drawn. Perhaps the flights of fancy are intended to distract attention from this fact. They certainly are distracting, at any rate. In recent times, unfortunately, the "realism" in "magical realism," made famous by novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, has been forgotten, and the whole concept has become confused with semicomic schmaltz. In Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, an epic about a South American village that rises up from the dust and disappears back into it, the slightly supernatural tone accentuated the impact and sense of inevitability of the meticulously conceived events, whereas in Antonia's Line, it is simply shorthand for "women are special." To paraphrase Mike Myers' Linda Richman on "Coffee Tawk," the magical realism in Antonia's Line is neither magical nor real... Discuss.

Review © March 2000 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1995 Fox Lorber Films. All rights reserved.

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