Film Reviews

Dutch Treat or Dutch Bleat?

As anyone who reads this column with regularity knows, I make it a point to boycott that annual orgy of industry politics and self-congratulatory ass kissing known as the Academy Awards. On Monday night, March 25, it seemed as if everybody I know A not to mention most of the disreputable watering holes I patronize, even the ones that feature tabletop dancing A tuned in to watch master of ceremonies Whoopi Goldberg lead a parade of tributes to an overwrought, cliche-ridden, relentlessly mediocre melodrama starring a male sex symbol wearing war paint, hair extensions, and a kilt. Ever the rebel, I headed off to CocoWalk to catch a 10:00 showing of the spirited Dutch film Antonia's Line. Except for yours truly, the theater was completely empty. While a worldwide television audience of tens (if not hundreds) of millions watched Antonia's Line win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, I sat in a vacant theater watching the actual movie. Color me hopeless.

I wish I could say that Antonia's Line is a great film and that at least the Academy Awards got one category right, but I can't. Don't get me wrong, Antonia's Line isn't a bad film; I enjoyed it. The movie brims with wit and resonates with studied earnestness. And it ridicules that scourge of enlightened modern civilization (and favored target of politically correct filmmakers) A the macho white male. Unfortunately it's also one of those movies that seem wiser than they really are because the filmmaker oversimplifies many of life's messy complexities in order to make sweeping statements about the human condition. But Antonia's Line perfectly fits the Oscar mold: set in the past, studiously PC, sentimental, multigenerational, and loaded with hollow ruminations on the nature of life, death, and the passage of time.

Set on a farm in the Dutch countryside at the close of World War II, Antonia's Line imagines a world in which women -- in particular, the indomitable matriarch Antonia -- call the shots. The movie isn't about equality; all the women in Antonia's Line lead noble lives, while men play supporting roles as friends, lovers, sperm donors, buffoons, and occasionally villains.

Writer-director Marleen Gorris structures her film as a colorful pastiche of flashbacks; the picture opens with 80-year-old Antonia recalling the day shortly after the war that she and her teenage daughter Danielle returned to the village of Antonia's youth to assume control of the farm Antonia's dying mother left to her. The village survived the war pretty much as Antonia left it, with the exception of some graffiti reading "Welkom to Our Liberators." The author of the message intended it for triumphant American troops, but it could have been aimed at Antonia as well.

Within days of her arrival the strong-willed Antonia becomes a magnet for the village's eccentrics who can't -- or won't -- fit neatly into the narrow roles prescribed for them by society. Wise, melancholy, stringy-haired recluse Crooked Finger departs from his usual melancholia to welcome Antonia. Russian cafe owner Olga, who also serves as local midwife and undertaker, offers friendship as well. Soon Antonia and her farm have become the center of a community of oddballs that includes Loony Lips the simpleton, gentle farmer Bas (a widower who patiently courts Antonia), and the perpetually pregnant (and unmarried) Letta, whose studmuffin brother is called upon to father Danielle's baby.

All would be quirkily idyllic in Antonia's garden were it not for the disruptive influence of (male) serpents such as fascist Boer landowner Daan and his evil spawn Pitte. Subtlety is not Gorris's strong suit; you can almost hear her instructing you to hiss when Pitte rapes his retarded sister DeeDee. Pitte's cruelty would be even more shocking and effective if his character were not such a one-dimensional slime, but Gorris insists on underlining and boldfacing his baseness. In her world, men break down into only two categories: sadistic brutes or tender, supportive doormats.

But even vile Pitte's malevolence cannot significantly disrupt Antonia's benign extended family. Caring, peaceful, creative lives flower in the nearly utopian environment fostered by Antonia's openness and passion. Nobody thinks twice when Danielle falls in love with a woman; Loony Lips and DeeDee find succor in each other's arms; Letta sets up house with a horny ex-priest who keeps those babies coming; Antonia finally accedes to farmer Bas's placid persistence.

Time passes. Generations come and go. People die. Babies are conceived. Antonia smiles through it all, keeping a watchful eye over her burgeoning brood and steering her female heirs toward courage, creativity, and self-reliance, while weaning them away from dependence on men. How could any sensitive, right-thinking Academy member not approve?

Antonia's Line.
Written and directed by Marleen Gorris; with Willeke van Ammelrooy, Els Dottermans, and Jan Decleir.

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Todd Anthony
Contact: Todd Anthony